State of Wonder

So, moving from books I really don’t like, to a novel that I really did. I don’t tend to read stories about the Amazon, or books that have medical themes, so the fact that I read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder in a state of enthrallment says a great deal to me about the brilliance of the writing. This is a novel about clashing cultures, about the dangerous wildness of nature and the uptight, mercenary desire for control at the heart, still, of Western civilisation; it’s also about the cold calculating ethics of science in conflict with the imperious, unethical demands of capitalism. And like all good novels it’s about love – what we do for it, and what we do with it. All this plus anacondas, magical drugs, lost tribes and profound philosophical issues! Yes, this novel is as packed as the jungle it evokes so vividly.

Somewhere in this jungle works Dr Annick Swenson, an esteemed ethnobiologist turned gynaecologist, who is developing a drug that would represent a little miracle in fertility. It’s such a potentially important – and lucrative – drug that the pharmacology company, Vogel, is happy to present her with an open chequebook and as much time as she needs. Only of course they never meant for her to disappear into the heart of the Amazon without sending a word on her progress. After two years of silence, Mr Fox sends Anders Eckman into the jungle to find out what’s going on. When the book opens, he’s received a curt missive from Dr Swenson telling him that Eckman is dead.

Marina Singh is Mr Fox’s lover, Anders colleague, and a friend of his wife, Karen. Karen doesn’t believe Anders is dead, and Mr Fox really wants to know how that drug is coming along. Between the two of them, the compliant Marina puts herself in a situation that terrifies her. She is a wonderful creation, the obedient good girl, who has repeatedly chosen the small, safe and insufficient path in life, particularly since an unfortunate accident during her intern days made her abandon gynaecology for good in favour of doing dull things with statins. That there is a depth of unacknowledged feeling in Marina is readily apparent when the anti-malaria drug she starts to take in preparation for her trip gives her screaming nightmares, the same nightmares she realises, that dogged her visits to her Indian father in infancy. In fact, it’s clear from the moment that she arrives in a heat-soaked Manaus, with the entire insect population regarding her as a snack plate, that this faintly mythic quest to locate a mad scientist and bring back her colleague from the underworld is going to test her to the limits of her capabilities. It’s going to crack her open and put her strengths and weaknesses on display. It is going to bring to the surface every issue that she has so far managed to keep battened down.

The thing is, Marina hasn’t been entirely truthful to anyone about her relationship with Annick Swenson. Swenson was her teacher back in her gynaecology days, and she had an important role to play in the accident that altered the course of Marina’s life. Annick Swenson is one of the best fictional scientists I think I’ve ever read, that ferocious teacher who terrified her students and left them in awe of her genius, the single-minded researcher whose dogged pursuit of answers is both admirable and fainly inhuman, and a woman whose own competence and efficiency leaves her with little but contempt for the hopeless, messy meanderings of most ordinary folk. The encounter between Marina and her former teacher is beautifully played out in the everyday trauma of the jungle, and unexpected transitions take place, as Marina finds her courage, and Dr Swenson is forced back into unusual vulnerability.

I read this as a book, not so much about states of wonder, but about estates and property, and the cut-throat question of who owns what in one of the few places left on earth where money doesn’t rule. Dr Swenson has discovered the Lakashi tribe, whose women have unlimited fertility, and the intellectual property that results from this is fraught with conflict. Vogel naturally believe they have bought everything that appertains to it – scientists, tribe members, drugs, the works. Only Annick Swenson has other ideas, not least as to whether women own the right to reproduce into later life. And if she revealed the location of her tribe to anyone, then the chances are that their lives would be destroyed as corporations, drug lords and rival tribes would desecrate the jungle. Dr Swenson’s madness, however, is to presume that the outcome of highly significant research exerts its own rights over ordinary mortals, who have a duty to surrender their individual will to the greater cause. It is most intriguing that in the middle of this, the woman sent to cut a swathe through this tangle of rights and property is Marina, who can’t even manage to keep hold of her suitcases. Marina, who can barely keep a handle on her own desires. In the end, though, it will be the gentle humanism of renouncing and letting go that will prove stronger than the will to control and master.

I thought this was an excellent book, a gripping story that raised all sorts of fascinating questions about scientific research without offering heavy handed answers, and a brilliant character study of two very different women hacking through their rich, dangerous and yet magical dark continent.

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31 thoughts on “State of Wonder

  1. I loved this book as well. I think Patchett has a remarkable knack of drawing you into a book by appearing to be writing something that isn’t going to over tax the reader in anyway only to then engage you in debates about deep philosophical and moral issues. I was particularly impressed by the way she moved your point of sympathy around. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling it for other readers, but my feelings towards Dr Swenson in particular see-sawed dramatically.

    • You say it perfectly! That’s exactly what’s so well done – the story is no mere vehicle for the philosophical questions, instead you have a truly coherent whole, a slice of life that naturally gives rise to pressing issues. I know just what you mean about Dr Swenson – I felt exactly the same!

  2. I can’t believe that this book has languished on my shelves for so many months now. I’m very anxious to read it after this review.

    • No need to feel bad! I don’t want to begin to count the number of probably fabulous books on my shelves that I have yet to get around to. Hopefully, you just have a treat in store for when the time comes!
      (so upset to be having trouble commenting at your site again – the same problem has reoccurred – no comment box to write in. I’ve experienced this problem with other blogger blogs too – boo hoo!)

  3. I’m planning on reading her soon as well but might start with Bel Canto.
    Your review reminded me a bit of Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition. It had a theme I wouldn’t normally be interested in- reserach-but the way she wrote about it was so gripping. And there were also all sorts of interesting sub themes.

    • I want to read Bel Canto now – I’ve heard so many mixed reactions to it, but that tends to make me even more intrigued as to what my response will be. I am pretty sure I have an Allegra Goodman novel to read, too, although not Intuition. But yes, that’s exactly the sort of thing I love – being drawn into a situation through the sheer brilliance of the writing.

  4. Only you, dear Litlove, could make me rethink my decision not to read any more Patchett (after being one of the few people I know on the planet who wasn’t enthralled by Bel Canto). This sounds like it’s really up my alley, though, with all those questions about scientific research, and, typically, I like to give most authors at least two chances, so maybe I’ll give it a go (not putting it at the top of my list, though).

    • I’ve heard lots of mixed things about Bel Canto, so don’t worry that you are alone! I get the feeling that Ann Patchett is an author who takes on very different situations in her novels, and so that does leave the door open on hope for another book. Like you, I’d always give someone another try. But probably not a third – got to draw the line somewhere!

    • I’ve heard good things about The Poisonwood Bible too – again, not a situation I’d normally be drawn to in a novel (although I enjoyed Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda many years ago). But maybe a novel I will try one day!

  5. I never thought I’d be interested in stories about the Amazon either until I read The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession In the Amazon, by David Grann a couple of years ago. It is a non-fiction account of Grann’s effort to retrace the journey of British explorer Percy Fawcett who disappeared in the Amazon with his son in the 1920′s while they were searching for an ancient city that may have existed (or which may have been myth). It was totally riveting. (But I felt itchy and scratchy a lot…there are bugs as big as mammals, apparently). I think I’d like this one a great deal.

    • Ha! I know what you mean about being piqued by vitual mosquitos while reading. Nothing like reading about bed bugs to give you the itchies. But your non-fiction recommendation sounds very intriguing. I am hugely influenced by the situation of any novel when it comes to making choices, and yet so often the brilliant books are the atypical ones that win through sheer excellence of writing. As for the vagaries of commenting, ack, it seems to get worse lately, between the ‘prove you’re not a robot but a degree level decoder’ messages on blogspot and all wordpresses recent changes!

  6. See, I’m with you. I’ve looked at this one many times, not least since it was a contender for the Orange Prize, the topic is so outside my normal reading matter I’ve always set it aside again. I really do need to be more daring–pick up a book that people have loved–for that fact and not worry about the story being one that would appeal to me (if that makes sense). This is why I am always so interested in Prize lists (like the Orange), but then also why I don’t seem to get around to reading many of the books on them… Must be more adventurous–and so glad it was a nice follow up to what came before. Doesn’t it reassure you that there is so much out there to love and appreciate.

    • It does reassure me that there are always gems to discover. I am hugely influenced by the situation described on the back cover of a book. It’s probably the main factor in my buying decisions. I’m not even sure what made me give State of Wonder a go – oh, I recall now, I was thinking my son’s girlfriend might enjoy it and that I could pass it over it if were good (it may not leave my shelves now!). But of course, having read it, I really want to read all of Patchett’s novels, and that’s a nice prospect. If you wanted to give this a try, I’d certainly think it’s worth a go for you – such a good story.

  7. Pingback: Best Books of 2012 | Tales from the Reading Room

  8. My book group just talked about State of Wonder and in general everyone loved it – all for different reasons and different characters. One question we had: who is the father of Swenson’s child? There were different answers to that in our group but we cannot find an answer int he book…

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