Wednesday, July 6, 2011

State of Wonder (review)

Title: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Publication Information: HarperCollins 2011
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist for Vogel, a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, is sent to Brazil following the mysterious death there of her research partner and friend, Dr. Anders Eckman. Anders had gone to investigate the fertility work Dr. Annick Swenson has been conducting in the Amazon for their employer, as her failure to report back regularly concerned Vogel management.

Marina has several secrets, not simply an affair with Mr. Fox, the CEO of Vogel, but also a mistake she made during her long ago residency in obstetrics (when she was Dr. Swenson’s Chief Resident) that injured a child, and drove her to the comparative safety of a research lab (on Grey’s Anatomy her angst would have lasted only a few episodes). She has no desire to go to the Amazon and childhood trips to India left her with nightmarish reactions to the malaria medication required for either destination, but she is unable to resist the entreaties of Anders’ widow.

What I liked: The book was extremely readable and the characters fairly memorable, particularly Easter, a small deaf boy who becomes close to Marina. The Bovenders, a feckless couple, living at Vogel’s expense in Dr. Swenson’s apartment in Manaus while she is in the jungle are vivid and convincing. Patchett does a great job of conveying the nightmarish quality of the jungle; the reader experiences the oppresiveness and it doesn't matter how much is real and how much due to Marina's fevers. Dr. Swenson is single-minded in her pursuit of science (regarding Anders’ death as an inconvenience) and pushes Marina to discard her research-lab passivity and practice medicine after 13 years. By saving a life or two, she is able to come to terms with the long ago tragedy. Although Marina’s instinctive reaction when confronted by her old professor is to revert into a passive role, she displays strength and determination (but rarely wins an argument with Dr. Swenson). Their relationship is central to the story.

What I disliked: I found the plot somewhat tedious, the setting unappealing, and was so grossed out by the non-stop description of insects I wanted to stop reading. I understood why Marina was driven to find Dr. Swenson and investigate Anders’ death and recognize she felt impelled to stay so she could rehabilitate herself in the eyes of her former professor. However, she had very little personality and after a while I did not really care what happened to her. I never understood what she saw in Mr. Fox either (her trip cures her of that attachment). In Bel Canto, the author’s best known work, there was a lyrical sense of music throughout the novel that united several appealing characters. Here, there is no lyricism other than the (alleged) hypnotic appeal of the jungle. Marina goes to the opera in Manaus (Orfeo ed Euridice – themes of loss and death and of Marina following Anders blindly), perhaps a tease to readers expecting more, but she is too unnerved by Dr. Swenson’s unexpected appearance to appreciate or enjoy the music.

Perhaps the jungle setting was just too real for me – I did not see the beauty, only the misery. Eva Ibbotson makes the Amazon seem appealing and I recommend Journey to the River Sea and A Company of Swans to those who like a romanticized image of the Amazon. Sadly, I suspect Patchett’s version is closer to the truth. I gather the book is in part a tribute to or inspired by Heart of Darkness which I never read.

Source: There were over 500 people ahead of me on the reserve list in the Minuteman System; luckily, the Waltham Library had a copy in its “Speed Read” section. I did consider buying the book to support the author’s recent plan to buy/operate a bookstore in Nashville but shelf space is at a premium in my new home.

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