Tuesday, February 10, 2015

State of Wonder

I'd been hearing about how good Ann Patchett's State of Wonder was, so when I was putting together my TBR Pile Challenge reading list in December I added it and then moved it to first position on the shelf.  It was a wonderfully satisfying novel.

It takes place mostly along the Amazon, where protagonist Dr. Marina Singh goes to try to find out what happened to her friend and colleague Dr. Anders Eckman.  He disappeared after being sent down by the pharmaceutical company they both work for to investigate the progress of a new drug being developed by a third colleague, Dr. Annick Swenson.

At first I was thrilled to be reading a compelling novel that was pretty much unlike anything I have read before.  My armchair travels frequently to Europe but very rarely to South America so that change of venue I found refreshing.  Plus Marina is an American-Indian (not as in Native American, but her father was from India), and I found that aspect of her backstory interesting as well. She's an interesting, sympathetic character that I found I could relate to despite our lives being drastically dissimilar.

I was impressed with her sense of loyalty and friendship, her professional integrity, and her chutzpah. She keeps her head in crises, thinks through and solves problems, and doesn't let her head rule her heart.

Once she finally got to the Amazon, however, I realized that the basic story arc started to seem familiar and it struck me that State of Wonder is a reworking of Joseph Conrad's classic, Heart of Darkness.  Just as Charles Marlow in Heart of Darkness goes down the Congo in search of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, Marina Singh goes down the Amazon in search of both Anders Ekman and the mysterious Annick Swenson.  I haven't read Heart of Darkness since I was a sophomore in high school in the 70s, so I can't draw more parallels than that, but now I'm considering a reread of it just to see if there are more parallels.  I just did an internet search and it appears that I am not alone in making the connection!  Can't wait to read what others wrote about this.

Anyway, back to why I found it satisfying.  I liked Marina--I had a stake in her story.  I visited the Amazon, which is not exactly on my top 50 places to visit, but I found the armchair visit fascinating.  I learned a ton about how drugs are developed.  I adored Easter, the native deaf manchild who has got to be one of the best fictional characters I've encountered in a long time.  I liked the moral and ethical conundrums that Marina faced as she came to understand what her role in her world could be, given her skills, her emotional constitution, and the opportunities that Dr Swenson reveal to her.

State of Wonder made me think--it took me to a world I know very little about and educated me--it got my heart thumping (there are a couple of heart stopping scenes: ever wrestle an Anaconda snake?)--and it made me care deeply about what happened to the characters in the story.  What more could I ask for?  Oh, yeah.  The writing is magnificent.  Ann Patchett is a new favorite author.


  1. I'm torn about this book; I really wanted to like it, but some of the things that happened at the end...especially with the little boy (sorry, I can't remember his name)...made me not like it so much. And I had a hard time warming up to Dr. Swenson. I picked it up primarily for the setting. (I find all things having to do with the Amazon jungle interesting.) And I like the way Patchett writes, but overall, I just didn't like this book as much as you did.

    1. Well, there isn't much to like about Dr. Swenson, but I thought her a fascinating person.

      The little boy was Easter, and his story was difficult but I think the story worked out right although it was heartbreaking.

  2. Great commentary on this one Jane.

    It also sounds so good. I look for works that are different. I also could learn a alot about the people and culture of the Amazon region.

    It has also been a long time since I read Heart of Darkness. If I recall it is short. I would likely give it a reread before reading this.

  3. I loved this book, as well as everything else Ann Patchett has written, but have never read Heart of Darkness. Wouldn't mind picking it up now just to see the parallels.

  4. I loved this story and still recall me sitting on my deck and enjoying when it was first released.

  5. Wonderful review! You react so wisely to the many facets of this novel! So glad you enjoyed it.