At the first meeting of my new book club a few weeks ago, we had a riveting and lively discussion about State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Most of us liked it, one person didn’t very much, but I think we all agreed that it was beautifully written and completely absorbing.
Marina Singh is a scientist who studies statins in a lab in Minnesota. When her co-worker, Anders, dies in the Amazon she is enlisted by both Anders’s wife and her boss (with whom she is having a secret relationship) to travel to Brazil and find out how he died and where he is buried. Anders had been trying to prod Dr. Annick Swenson to complete her research on a new fertility drug she is developing for their company. When Marina arrives at the camp she realizes that the research is disguising Dr. Swenson’s true goals, but she is lulled into complaisance by the freedom of living away from American society and by her relationship with a little boy named Easter who was informally adopted by Dr. Swenson. She quickly becomes comfortable living in the forest with limited modern conveniences and rough living conditions until an unexpected discovery forces her to make a drastic choice.
State of Wonder is an intricate, dynamic story that explores the ethics of invading native cultures for gain, the business of drug development and also touches on issues of aging, friendship, and regret. The story is told from Marina’s viewpoint and we come to know her as an intelligent, thoughtful and searching woman who goes to Brazil at a time when she is questioning her life decisions. She is a passive character without a strong backbone who is a perfect contrast to Dr. Swenson, an extremely steely lady who never questions herself.
The pacing is quite slow and this was a problem for several people in my book group. It is definitely not plot driven and there are many long descriptive passages and large chunks when nothing seems to happen. I really like this style and prefer a more leisurely narrative so I connected with the book in a way that some of my friends didn’t. I admire authors who can sustain my interest without constantly throwing twists and shocks into the story.
I think Ann Patchett created a quiet masterpiece with State of Wonder. I enjoyed it, engaged with it and was emotionally affected by the story more than I have been by a novel in a while. Her writing is understated yet gorgeous and she doesn’t judge her characters – she tells their story and leaves the interpretation to the reader.
I’ve loved both Patchett books I’ve read (the other was Truth and Beauty) and will read more of her novels this year. Have you read her books? Which would you recommend I read next?