Friday, April 06, 2012

State of Wonder

I must be one of the last to discover and devour Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel, State of Wonder.  What is more embarrassing, however, is that this is also the very first Ann Patchett novel I have read.  And it is not like I did not already know of Patchett’s name and reputation because the chatter following her immense success with Bel Canto in 2003 was impossible to miss.  But for whatever reason, I managed to avoid her work for several more years.  I recommend that anyone still doing that find themselves a copy of State of Wonder immediately so they, too, can experience one of those literary treats that come along only every so often.

State of Wonder is set deep in the Amazon jungle – so deep inside the jungle that communication with the outside world is a difficult and time consuming process that requires a long boat ride back to civilization.  Annick Swenson, a doctor working for a large Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, is there to head up a research project from which she hopes to produce a cure for malaria.  The company, already having spent a fortune on supporting the remote project, is concerned by Swenson’s lack of communication about her project.  The 73-year-old doctor refuses to communicate by cell phone or radio, and delivery of a letter in either direction is only a few degrees more reliable than tossing a note-filled bottle into the sea. 

When word reaches corporate head Mr. Fox that his first emissary to the Amazon has perished in the process of checking on Dr. Swenson’s progress, Fox asks Dr. Marina Singh, a former student of Swenson’s, to meet with her – a much easier said than done project that will see Dr. Singh retracing the steps of her deceased colleague.  Sing, for personal reasons, and because she hopes her mission will bring some comfort to the dead man’s widow and children, agrees to go, thus beginning a masterfully recounted adventure.

Anne Patchett
What Marina finds in the jungle is not at all what she expects to find.  Dr. Swenson, still the cold and self-righteous woman that Marina remembers from her student days at John Hopkins, feels no obligation to explain herself to anyone, including those providing the funding that keeps her in the field.  It is up to Marina to unravel the mystery of her partner’s death and the even greater mystery surrounding the research her company is funding.  What she discovers in both instances is astounding.

State of Wonder is heavy on atmosphere and character development, a book that arm chair travelers will most certainly appreciate.  As one might expect, the unnerving conditions Patchett describes – the utter darkness, the deadly snakes and insects, the isolation, etc. – are less intimidating (but remain just as deadly) as time goes by.  Both Patchett’s characters and her readers are lulled into a sense of complacency that explodes in a scene during which Patchett describes what surely has to be one of the most exciting battles between man and snake ever put on paper.

State of Wonder is one very fine literary novel/ thriller, with the key word being literary.  Highly recommended.

Rated at: 5.0 

1 comment:

  1. list is permanent. Her other novels are, to me, merely very very good. Now, 10 years later, comes "State of Wonder," another brilliant tour de force that I can't quite bring myself to call "Bel Canto's" equal--but it certainly comes close.

    The two novels are alike in some interesting ways: Both are set in South America. Both revolve around a group of a dozen or so highly intelligent, driven, often quirky characters who are, for most of the story's duration, pretty much walled off in a confined space on foreign turf and dependent on the good will and collaboration of natives--the "Bel Canto" characters in a hostage situation, the "State of Wonder" characters in a secret and hidden research lab deep in the Amazon rainforest. Each novel takes its own good time bringing its characters and their situations to life. But as anyone who's read "Bel Canto" will come to suspect, all of this leisurely business of getting us where the author is taking us will eventually lead to a major wallop and jaw-dropper that makes the previous slow-going well worth one's time. And both novels fit well the Washington Post review blurb description on my copy of "Bel Canto," as being "its own universe.