Sunday, August 3, 2014

REVIEW: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of WonderState of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Fiction
Series: None
Awards: Shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Wellcome Book Prize
Format: Audio
Narrated By: Hope Davis

My impression from some dodgy perusals of the internet (i.e. my impression may be wildly inaccurate) is that Ann Patchett is a little bit of a divisive author – you either like her A LOT or you don’t. This is the second of her books I’ve read (Bel Canto was the other) and it has placed me solidly into the “love her” camp. Both of these books are ordinary human stories set in front of an extraordinary backdrop making them both epic and intimate. Bel Canto examined a group of people all trapped as hostages for days on end in an unnamed South American country. State of Wonder follows a pharmaceuticall researcher, Marina Singh, as she confronts her past and her charismatic former medical school mentor in the jungles of the Amazon.

Marina is sent to Brazil by her Minnesota based employer to find and get an update from Dr. Annick Swenson who is working on a lucrative fertility drug derived from a tropical plant in the Amazon rainforest. This mission is personal for Marina because she is following in the footsteps of her officemate and friend who has just died while trying to achieve this same goal. She needs to find out exactly what happened to her friend but is unprepared for what awaits her in the very different world of the Amazon rain forest.

This is a many-layered book and could be described as part mystery. It truly fits the description of peeling an onion, with each successive layer revealing something that is, at the least, unexpected. Marina faces personal demons from her past while trying to solve the enigma of Dr. Swenson and discover what her friend’s last days were like and why he died surrounded by doctors. There is also the mystery of the primitive tribe whose women are fertile into their seventies and eighties.

Almost universally, I find the characters Patchett creates very interesting to spend time with. Dr. Swensen starts off, as she is characterized using hearsay and initial interactions, an egotistical and selfish misanthropist; I imagined her the villain of the piece. As more time is spent with her, those same words can be used to describe her but her madness developed reason and she turned into one of my favorite characters. The ghost of Anders Eckman is also fleshed out as a fully realized character so that Marina’s grief and search for answers has weight. Patchett did a brilliant job of making me care deeply that he was dead even though the reader doesn’t meet him except in other character’s memories.

It was also very easy to imagine being in Marina’s shoes, having to travel from Minnesota to Brazil, ill-prepared and beset on all sides by insects and moisture and vegetation. Brazil is portrayed in a detail that made it as much a part of the story for me as any of the characters.

Finally I want to mention the subject matter which centers on the development of new drugs from plants in the rainforest. This is a very cool topic and the book tackles some of the moral issues surrounding it in an interesting and non-preachy way.

Final Verdict: A story with lots of twists and turns and complex, interesting characters. Beautifully written and engrossing.

So where do you stand on Ann Patchett?  The love camp or the meh camp?

No comments:

Post a Comment