Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review - Bestsellers - State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

While she’s in no way a “romance writer,” novelist Ann Patchett seems to love a little romance in her novels, and she seems to like that romance to flower between the unlikeliest of characters. In Bel Canto, for example, possibly Patchett’s best known and most loved book, opera soprano, Roxanne Koss has an unlikely romantic adventure with an older Japanese gentleman, only to marry an even more unlikely younger one. In her latest book, State of Wonder, the protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, is involved with a man eighteen years older than she is, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company where she works, and it’s a relationship that’s not without its problems.

Forty-two-year-old Marina Singh is a pharmacologist and research scientist at Vogel Pharmaceutical Company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Her work for Vogel revolves around some fairly routine research into the lowering of blood serum cholesterol with drugs called statins. In this way – as well as in several other ways – Marina differs from another of Vogel’s researchers, Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson is a brilliant rogue scientist who is now “somewhere on a tributary off the Rio Negro” deep in the jungles of Brazil researching the miraculous post-menopausal fertility of the women of the Lakashi tribe, a fertility that allows them to routinely bear children well into their seventies and eighties. Unlike Marina’s research, the research of the very difficult Dr. Swenson, who is an ethnobiologist turned gynecologist turned immunologist, is so valuable to Vogel that she enjoys an open checkbook, with no questions asked. Her research could someday provide many women, now infertile, with a seemingly “magic” answer to their problems and provide Vogel with a substantial fortune. As Marina’s longtime lab partner, Anders Eckman put it, it could become a “ ‘Lost Horizon’ for American ovaries.”

As the book opens, Marina is just receiving the news that Anders Eckman, who was sent to Brazil a few months previously to find Dr. Swenson and report on both her location and her activities, has died from a fever. Curiously, it’s Dr. Swenson who writes the letter informing Mr. Fox, Marina’s CEO lover, of Eckman’s death. “We chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions,” writes Swenson. “I must assure you it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr Eckman’s mission, I can assure you we are making strides.” Vogel’s CEO, however, isn’t going to take Dr. Swenson’s word for it.

It’s the sixty-year-old Fox, who informs Marina of Eckman’s death and tells her that she, herself, being his “Plan B,” must now travel to the Amazon, just as Eckman did, to report on those very valuable activities of Dr. Swenson. And, it isn’t long before Marina is on a pontoon boat, sailing “down a river into the beating heart of nowhere,” armed with only a volume of Henry James, a back issue of the “New England Journal of Medicine,” and a high-tech, GPS-enabled cell phone.

Only four or five pages into the book, the reader realizes that the premise of State of Wonder seems to bear a great resemblance to Joseph Conrad’s wonderful novella, Heart of Darkness. Both books feature protagonists who journey into the heart of the jungle, and Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who fails to communicate with the very people who are funding her research, may be mad, just as Kurtz was mad in Conrad’s masterpiece. For me, this was a welcome proposition since I love Conrad’s book, and the possible similarities caused me to read on with much anticipation.

This won’t be the first time Marina has come into contact with Dr. Annick Swenson. The unapproachable doctor was one of Marina’s medical school professors, one who was so difficult she caused Marina to change direction as far as her career was concerned. As Marina heads to the Amazon to do battle with Dr. Swenson, she’s flung into a world of memories, and she must do battle, not only with external forces, but with her own inner demons as well.

The daughter of a white mother and an Indian father who abandoned the family, Marina grew up feeling like an interloper in her own home. She was the girl with “all those translucent cousins who looked at her like she was a llama who had wandered into their holiday dinner.” Searching for her roots, the young Marina traveled to Calcutta to visit her father, and it was on that trip that she first took the anti-malarial drugs that cause her to suffer nightmares on the long flight to Brazil. (Why didn’t she just take doxycycline? It’s a safe anti-malarial.)

Although the beginning of the book is interesting, State of Wonder doesn’t hit its stride until Marina’s plane touches down in South America, and the “state of wonder” referred to by Patchett can be felt by the reader. Arriving in Brazil, Marina imagines that “every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.” And the reader finds he or she can agree with Marina.

As Marina’s journey progresses, we learn more and more about this quiet, and somewhat repressed, woman. And, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, it’s interesting. But interesting as learning about Marina is, I wanted to get on with the story and felt the pace of the book dragged a bit at times, especially during Marina’s time in the Brazilian city of Manaus, where she waits for the boat to take her into the jungle.

It isn’t until Marina comes face-to-face with Annick Swenson that State of Wonder finally finds its center. While Marina puzzles out just what, exactly, is happening in the jungle (and it’s a bit more than initially thought), the reader gets to know Dr. Annick Swenson, and Dr. Annick Swenson, I think, has certainly been worth the wait. A sharp-tongued, sharp-witted eccentric, Annick Swenson is the best-realized character in the book, though I suspect that may only be because Marina Singh is a little more quiet and reserved and a lot more “normal.” I liked Marina, and I didn’t particularly like Dr. Swenson, but I have to admit, it was Swenson who lit up the pages.

As the book heads toward its climax and resolution, the fate of Marina Singh, the truth surrounding the mysterious death of Anders Eckman, and the future of the Lakashi all become entwined. Was the ending an ending worthy of Conrad? No, definitely not, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about the rushed ending Patchett crafted. On the whole, I feel it’s a little too loony to be taken seriously, and it undermines all that went before.

Some reviewers have said this book is worth reading for Patchett’s prose alone. While there’s no doubt that Patchett does write lovely prose, I’ve never read a book for its prose alone, though bad prose has caused me to abandon several. There’s no doubt that Patchett’s descriptions of the jungle are real standouts. One example can be found when Marina finds herself in the jungle during a thunderstorm, when there was “a single, nuclear flash of lightening that was followed some milliseconds later by a clap of thunder that could have cracked the world in half, and then, because these things come in threes, there was rain.” Another beautiful description tells the reader about Marina’s first sight of stars from her position in the jungle. She sees a “textbook of constellations, the heroes of mythology posing on fields of ink.” My favorite, however, takes place while Marina is still in Minnesota: “It wasn’t a bright day but what light there was reflected off the snow and cast a wide silvery band across the breakfast table…Pickles leaned up against Marina now and…she reached down to rub the limp chamois of his ears.”

Still, as beautifully written as this book is, there are times when Patchett resorts to cliché: jungle insects come “down in a storm,” an encounter with an indigenous tribe brings poison-tipped arrows “raining down,” and the jungle, itself, is filled with “screeching cries of death and slithering piles of leaves.” At other times, Patchett is vague, as when Marina tries to reflect on the jungle, but keeps being brought back to her own past, instead: “She kept still, looking out through the top of the hammock…She thought about medical school, the fluorescent halls of that first hospital, the stacks of textbooks.” That’s okay. It’s not bad, but for someone with Patchett’s imagination, I just didn’t think that was good enough.

The characterization of Dr. Annick Swenson was wonderful, and though I liked Marina Singh and often sympathized with her, I found her a weaker character than her one-time mentor. Marina’s intentions are better than those of Swenson, but even so, Marina seems unable to put those good intentions into practice. For example, she finds the Lakashi language too foreign to even learn the names of natives with whom she interacts. Unlike Swenson, Marina remains an outsider, despite her intentions, one who’s unable to empathize with the native people of Brazil or with their problems. To a point, I could forgive Patchett her rather confused characterization of Marina Singh. Marina Singh, after all, is a confused and inhibited woman, who, for most of the book, doesn’t really know what she wants or even what she believes in.

What I found more difficult to forgive was Patchett’s characterization of the Lakashi. Patchett renders the Brazilian natives a little less than human. Beings that don’t even possess a true language (I guess Marina can be forgiven for not learning to speak with them), and who make sounds “less like words and more like the call and answer of birds.” Dr. Swenson describes them like this: “They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river.” Patchett’s indigenous people fail as characters because their creator constantly holds them up to Western “standards” of “excellence,” and allows her other characters to summarize the Lakashi in the clichéd terms of B-movies. Strangely, Patchett does the same thing with the entire southern hemisphere. Although her jungle descriptions are, as previously stated, beautiful, she is constantly comparing the southern hemisphere to the more familiar (to her characters) northern, and it’s the northern that always seems to be “right.”

Some reviewers have said that State of Wonder is Patchett’s most mature book to date, and in terms of theme, I suppose it is, and that’s all to the good, I think. However, the book lacks the emotional drive, and the heart, of some of her previous books. A weighty theme can be very important, but in the end, it isn’t more important than good, solid, character motivation. People are, first and foremost, curious about other people.

There was much about State of Wonder that I liked, and there were several things I didn’t care for at all. All in all, I feel it’s an uneven book, and even though I did enjoy spending time with Marina Singh, I felt the book definitely lacked the magic that infused Bel Canto. State of Wonder is a book I enjoyed, but it’s not a book I found memorable.


Recommended: Patchett fans will love this book and will rave about it. Others will probably like parts of the book and not like other parts. If you’re new to Patchett, this is not the place to start. Bel Canto, though not perfect, is a better book, and would be a better bet.


Anonymous said...

I read this book and I felt the same about it. I sure wasn't wowed, but the writing was pretty.

Espana said...

I was curious to find out how the author would put together a biracial ex-MD/scientist, an enigmatic researcher, a missing father/scientist, and the Amazon and make the wonder of them all. The book is well written, enough to sustain the interest, but in the end, none of the above really seem to have been utilized fully to create the state of wonder. There are interesting topics such as the recurring theme of missing father, questions about ethics in scientific research and sponsoring business etc., but they leave too many loose ends...and characters never really come alive. And... as the author stated in some interviews, there seems to be resemblance from other book by Conrad....I don't think it worked for this book.