Tuesday, June 21, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

On a scale of one to five, this wonder deserves a ten.  It’s both a swashbuckling adventure and a compelling metaphoric symphony.  When word comes that Anders Eckman has died of a fever in a remote Amazon region Marina Singh, his pharmaceutical company lab partner, is dispatched to find his remains and it seems that a Jamesian journey to the “heart of darkness” is about to begin. Yet, this reader found it more like Dorothy’s trek through Oz especially with Marina’s former mentor, the elusive and mysterious Dr. Annick Swenson hidden behind the curtain of the Amazon jungle.  Marina’s boss and lover, a man even she calls Mr. Fox, had sent Anders to bring back news of Dr. Swenson’s progress in developing a drug that would allow women to remain fertile their whole lives but the odd doctor remained uncommunicative and resistant to leaving her secreted village.   

Patchett plots the action as if it were an elaborate mosaic with each piece precisely scribed to fit its neighbor.  Marina arrives in the decaying city of Manaus, Brazil where she spends weeks trying to ingratiate herself with a slapstick cast including Milton, a major domo figure, who seems to have the entire country at his beck and call and the Bovanders, a fey couple who hold the key to locating Dr. Swenson.  

When Marina finally begins her river journey, Easter, a deaf boy Dr. Swenson has rescued, pilots them literally and figuratively into the ever narrowing darkness of the Amazon. They arrive to find the Lakashi tribe carrying torches and ululating in welcome while Marina’s luggage and more importantly her malaria medicine and global phone go missing.  Forced to dress as the tribal women and lacking any contact with the world, Marina quickly assimilates into the tribal village Dr. Swenson rules.  

In a pivotal scene rivaling the best Indiana Jones movie, Marina, Easter, another native and a giant anaconda battle aboard a small pontoon boat.  I hate snakes and have refused to read some fine books because of their presence but I was glued to the page during this mesmerizing skirmish. Soon after, Marina visits the area where the Lakashi women chew the bark of trees that allows them infinite fertility and protection from other diseases and she later performs a chilling operation that makes her seem indispensible to the village. 

Meanwhile Marina forms a bond with Easter and begins to question the imperturbably caustic Dr. Swenson.. A raft of adventures awaits and builds to an unexpected yet thoroughly believable climax.  The book has a perfect ending that brings the entire tale full circle and makes me want to read this adventure again to savor the intricate language and plotting. I flew through it completely captivated by the cast and sat in wonder as I contemplated whether Marina would ever be able to click her heels and return to Minnesota. 

Summing it Up: State of Wonder is a wonder that will transport you to a grown-up “Land of Oz” where native dancers, miracle drugs, incredible dreams, and a jungle so thick and hot it makes you want to shower await you.   You’ll beg your book club to abandon their next selection so you can discuss it.  If I could I’d adopt Easter, a character I’ll carry with me forever.  I adored Patchett’s Bel Canto but this may just top it.  

Rating: 5 stars     

Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club 

Publication date: June 7, 2011 
Author website: http://www.annpatchett.com/ 

Reading Group Guide: http://www.harpercollins.com/author/authorExtra.aspx?authorID=20650&isbn13=9780062049803&displayType=readingGuide 

Interview with Diane Rehm: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2011-06-08/ann-patchett-state-wonder 

What Others are Saying: 
The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/state-of-wonder-by-ann-patchett-2293017.html 

Kirkus Reviews: http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/fiction/ann-patchett/state-wonder/#review 

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/02/books/state-of-wonder-by-ann-patchett-book-review.html 


  1. I was gripped by this as well. "State of Wonder" indeed, for that is how I am left. It is clearly up to us to write about the future of each of these characters. It is gripping. I closed the book after begging in futility to get the story to continue. Alas, it is up to our imaginations -- though I'm sure I have the perfect ending. You will be too. Don't miss it.

  2. I was profoundly moved by this novel, which offers deep and humane insights into the meaning of friendship and love packed in a gripping tale and involving interesting and multi-faceted characters.

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