Books are like foods–some are empty calories, some are starchy, and some are just plain fine eating. State of Wonder is reading gourmet.
The first chapter of Ann Patchett’s book is a study in excellent writing. Mr. Fox, head of Vogel, a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota, bring Dr. Marina Singh news that her colleague, Anders, has died in the Amazon. As Patchett spins out why he was there, how the three are related, and takes Marina and Fox into Anders’ home to break the news, the writing crackles with emotion and suspense. Anders’ death is told by a letter from Dr. Swenson, the lead researcher at an undisclosed location in the Amazon who is looking for a fertility drug based on the unending fertility of the Lakashi tribe and her extremely clinical letter paints an unsympathetic portrait of her as a person. She’s an archetype–the overly driven professional woman who left behind her humanity in order to succeed in a man’s world. Patchett’s description of Anders’ wife’s initial grief is so spot-on to be painful. She blows up the details the way people under these circumstances focus on random parts of their environment to keep from crumbling altogether under the weight of such news. The first chapter is simply amazing.
No one could maintain that pace, but Patchett does a masterly job of keeping the pace and the balance of detail and plot motion throughout the remainder of the novel. Marina Singh is drafted to go to the Amazon and find her former teacher, Dr. Swenson, and to find what really happened to Anders. During Marina’s journey, she reveals that her relationship with Dr. Swenson is deeply problematic. Add this to her complicated relationship with Mr. Fox and Marina looks a bit of a mess. Her insides begin to match her outsides when she finally arrives at Dr. Swenson’s site, the Lakashi village, her clothes are stolen, and she ends up wearing the tribal shift dress and flip flops for the remainder of her stay.
Patchett’s description of the Amazon is both terrifying and romantic. She dwells on the claustrophobic tangle of vegetation and the dizzying array of insects and wildlife. The birds, in fact, are what drew Anders to take on the task of visiting Dr. Swenson in the first place. Marina is terrified by her first sight of the Lakashi, who scream with flaming torches on the riverbank and swim out and swarm her boat as it tries to dock. By novel’s end she is watching avidly for those torches and cries to welcome her home, slapping thighs and arms in greeting, and accepting the grooming ministrations of the village women as soothing. She has been seduced by the life of the Lakashi, but the rhythms of life in the Amazon, and disenchanted with the pretenses of life in the civilized world. But hold onto your hats because Patchett, who starts her novel with a tranquil office scene that descends into horrific grief, will not leave you this comfortable, with an answer this easy.
There are political themes in the novel: the quest of western women to delay fertility in order to live more fulfilled lives and the dilemma of that freedom; the west’s treatment of the environment and our need to consume to escape; the delicate balance of the ecology and the amazing gifts of nature; and the west’s continuing colonialism even as we espouse democratic values for all. These are interesting themes, but most interesting to me were the three key women in the novel: Karen Eckmann, whose strength and conviction in the face of loss drives the premise of the plot; Marina Singh, whose biracial background and her gender complicate every moment of her life; and Anneck Swenson, whose dedication and drive, once necessary to impel her, decades later appear morally suspect at best and bankrupt at worst.
I listened to this book on audio and I go back and forth about audio vs print. A beautifully written book can, I think, be best enjoyed on audio, where the poetry of the prose cannot be ignored, even by a reader who tends to rush through the words to consume the plot (a true product of the west). However, Patchett provides so many beautiful scenes, so many memorable lines, that I feel compelled to follow up with a print copy that I can mark, dissect, and colonize (again a product of the west).
As the novel moved forward, I kept wondering to whose state of wonder Patchett was referring. Ultimately I concluded that it’s that of the reader. Read this book.