State of Wonder: Ann Patchett
June 28, 2011 | Reviews
Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder has been getting a tremendous amount of press lately. It’s on the New York Times best-seller list, and has enjoyed rave reviews from institutions such as The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Times. When a book is already getting so much attention, you might wonder why someone would write yet another review of it. It’s not an obscure book that needs attention, and being one of hundreds (perhaps thousands) writing makes it more likely that another review will just get lost in the fray. I debated whether or not to write a review of State of Wonder for awhile, but in the end I decided that I had to. Why? It’s just too damn good to go unexplored.
State of Wonder follows the exploits of Marina Singh, former OB/GYN student turned pharmaceutical scientist working at a company named Vogel. Vogel, as it turns out, has a bit of a problem. In the Amazon, there is a hidden tribe of women who have children up until the end of their life, pregnancy well into their seventies is not uncommon. Hoping to discover to tribe’s secret and develop a wonderful new fertility drug, Vogel funded research in the Amazon (which is being led by Marina’s former OB/GYN instructor, Dr. Annick Swenson). The trouble is, that research has been going on for several years too long and Dr. Swenson maintains a tight barrier of secrecy. No one knows for sure where the site in the Amazon actually is or how the progress on the drug development is going. To put it short, they know absolutely nothing about what they are paying for. With the hopes of getting Dr. Swenson to either speed up her research or go home, they send one of Marina’s co-workers, Anders Eckmen, to find Dr. Swenson and see what it going on. A few months later, Marina and her boss (and love interest), Mr. Fox, miraculously recieve a message from Dr. Swenson herself. (Understandably, it’s hard to send mail out of the middle of the Amazon.) The note states, casually and unsentimentally, that Anders Eckman has died of a fever and was buried there in the jungle. Due to dual pressures from Anders’s wife Karen to find out what happened to him, and from Mr. Fox to resume pressuring Dr. Swenson, Marina soons find her self heading towards the Amazon to discover the truth.
While reading this book, my consistant thought was that State of Wonder is an English professor’s dream. It is so rich with symbolism and overstuffed with themes that you could easily spend weeks discussing it. Is it a discussion of fertility? Yes. Is it a discussion about the ethics of drug research? Yes. Is it a love story? Yes. Is it an adventure story? A very enthusiastic yes. The characters are also incredibly complex and fascinating. If you wanted to, you could probably write a whole thesis deconstructing the character of Easter (a mute child whom Marina meets in the jungle).
Furthermore, there are many literary references throughout the book that are interesting to discover. Before going deep into the jungle, Marina sees the opera Orpheus, which reflects her own upcoming trip into hell. More direct are the constant parallels between State of Wonder and Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (and by extension, the movie Apocalypse Now). Marina is Charles Marlow/Captain Willard in this story and Dr. Swenson is Kurtz. The connections are so clear that I confess while reading certain sections, I couldn’t stop myself from humming “The End”.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that Patchett’s work is a copy of Conrad’s, because it isn’t. She may use the base idea as a foundation, but through the crafting of her characters and her general gift with words, she has made it into something very unique. This novel is not perfect, but it is very, very close to it. (I can’t say what it is because it would spoil the book, but something that takes place on page 350 seemed against the sentiment of the book up to that point. It was so close to being a perfect book, but that scene just seemed uneccessary.) Some may find Patchett’s useage of themes, symbolism, and literary allusion to be overzealous, but I found that it made the book all the more engrossing. This is a book that pulls you in, that you get lost in. When you read it, you’re not sitting in your house or wherever you happen to be sitting with the book. When you read State of Wonder, you are in the jungle.
I enthusiastically recommend this book.