State of Wonder

Ann Patchett’s novel, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction has left me pondering. Wondering what it was I missed that caused others, such as Joanna Trollope to say:

Every so often – and that’s not, actually very often – I read something that makes me want to press fervently and evangelically onto everyone I meet. This has just happened with Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder

And Emma Donoghue who said:

The best book I have read all year. It made me laugh and weep and left me in a state of wonder

Marina Singh is a doctor working for a pharmaceutical company since switching from obstetrics to pharmacology near the end of her studies. Coincidentally, one of her female professors Dr Swenson also works for Vogel and is acting solo, outside her jurisdiction in the Amazon, observing a tribe whose unique development could have significant implications for the lives of women and humanity. This rebellious, unorthodox researcher and her unique way of working has been tolerated by the company, until a letter arrives informing the CEO Mr Fox of the death of a staff member he sent to report back. Marina is asked to follow-up and becomes drawn into the alternative universe of life in the Amazon jungle.

It is an interesting concept and a thrilling journey, one of the most moving and real parts for me being an encounter with an anaconda that almost had fatal consequences. However, throughout the book, I couldn’t shake off a sense of reluctance, of characters holding back; was Mr Fox being honest or was he hiding something? Why doesn’t Marina question or insist on answers?   It was hard to believe that the head of a large pharmaceutical pouring significant funding into a research project would tolerate the situation without acting in a more forthright manner.

Dr Swenson was definitely withholding, resisting, imbued with a sense of superiority that didn’t ring true or convince me. Ironically, as Marina begins to accept the way of life in the jungle I could very well see her becoming part of that environment which would have been interesting to pursue further, more so than the enigmatic Dr Swenson.

True, I was somewhat impatient to get to the Amazon itself and for that I blame an unquenchable thirst for adventurous travel and the fact that as far back as I can remember, the Amazon was the VERY first destination that my younger mind desired to visit. I remember it vividly even now, a feeling that grew after watching ‘The Emerald Forest’ (1985), a film that had a real effect on me, I fell in love with the wilderness of the Amazon and vowed that one day I would go there.

The film is based on the true story of a 7-year-old boy kidnapped by Indians, who disappear into the Amazon forest. The boy’s father, a Venezuelan engineer, spent every summer for the next 10 years searching the forests for his son and eventually found him.

It is quite likely then, that this memory may have had an effect on any impression this book could make, something that represents an unfulfilled dream for me and not one which involves pharmaceutical companies looking for a profit or scientists tampering with nature. So don’t let me stop you from finding out for yourself, it’s certainly one to discuss and as you can see from the quotes above, for some this book is a definite favourite.

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33 thoughts on “State of Wonder

  1. Very interesting and intriguing novel. I had heard good things about it but didn’t really know what it was about. Like your post but I don’t think I’d pick this one up. I have The Patron Saint of Liars on my shelf but haven’t picked it up yet. After reading this post I’m going to make an effort. Thanks for reminding me of Ann Patchett.

  2. I was definitely less than enchanted with this book. I think Ann Patchett just has a following, or a reputation, or something that predisposes people to love her books before even reading them. Or perhaps we’re just crabby because we don’t lick enough bark!

    • Yes, well when she started getting into the habit, it certainly got more believable for me and my imagination kicked into gear anticipating all kinds of interesting outcomes, alas that was not what she was destined for, though I like to think that was the point where the character tried to take over the script from the author :)

  3. Encounters an anaconda? *shivers!* Funny how some people love jumping from a plane, while others are petrified to ride in one, or some love the adventure of a rainforest, whilst others would run the other way. In this case, interesting how you, with a love of the rainforest, don’t quite harbour the same passion for the novel as others.

  4. Hmmm, interensting. Not sure that it is my genre of books, but I if I do get around to reading it, I think your questions will linger for me! Great review and BTW-I LOVED the movie The Emerald Forest.I had totally forgotten about it. Thanks for the great memory.

  5. I adored The Magician’s Assistaant, Bell canto less so but I was really looking forward to this book. I kept on telling myself that I was loving it, and yes, looking back I did enjoy it, but I wasn’t walking around holding it in front of me like I usually do with a book I’m really enjoying so it must have been missing that hook that keeps you completely entranced.

  6. I think you are not the only one who didn’t like this book, Claire. I know I read some reviews about it, and I guess half of them were loving the book, while the other half didn’t.
    No worries… Taste differs (I don’t know if this is the correct expression, but I hope you understand what I mean).
    Thanks for the honest review.

    • I did enjoy parts of it and the challenge of trying to understand why I couldn’t fall into it, it’s easy to say we don’t like something and often much harder to work out why. It certainly made me think a lot about that as my book buddy and I generally love the same books. I would like to read ‘The Magician’s Assistant’ some time to see if this was just a one off.

      • Yes, it is often difficult to say exactly why one doesn’t like a book, as it is equally hard to say why one finds a book exceptionally good. At least, that is my experience.

  7. I’ve only ever read one Pratchett book before, which was back in college (year 11 english), and I still think it was an odd choice for sixteen year olds to read (can’t remember the title but it was something about a homesick restaurant?). I think I have her on some kind of mental shelf of authors who I’ve – somewhat arbitrarily – decided I don’t connect well with, or would find dull. But this doesn’t sound dull. Adventure in the Amazon? The stand-offishness of the characters puts me off a bit though. I wonder if that’s down to her style?

    • I wonder if you are thinking of Pratchett?

      I believe you are right in mentioning style, I’m really into language and words, the use of metaphor, poetic prose within a good story and I’ve read a few good books recently which were a pleasure to immerse in. This book didn’t do that for me, like the mosquitos in the rainforest it irritated sadly.

      • Oh wow, you’re totally right, I’m thinking of Anne Tyler!! Sorry, total baby brain moment. In that case I’m forever getting them confused and I don’t think I’ve read any Pratchett at all!

        Sometimes an author’s style clicks and sometimes it doesn’t – and sometimes it’s just plain annoying. Would you read more of her work?

      • I tried to read ‘Bel Canto’ and didn’t finish it, it sounds like ‘The Magician’s Assistant’ was a hit, but think I prefer to jump ship for now, I’m reading non-fiction, I need to read about about real life courageous women now :) Yolande of Aragon and Joan of Arc, I’m hooked already.

  8. I bought State of Wonder when it was on offer for the Kindle a few weeks ago but I haven’t got to it yet. I have never read any of her others. The Joan of Arc book sounds fascinating.

  9. Claire,

    You definitely have company in the “pondering” department. Another blogger whose taste generally meshes with my own gushed over this one. I read it for the ToB (he did too) and just couldn’t see what was great. It wasn’t awful and there is some craftsmanship, but the protagonist is a very weak lead and too much of the plot feels contrived (all fictional plots are, of course, but they don’t have to feel that way). I am always pleased when someone else is left scratching their head after reading the same highly-praised book that made me feel out of step.

    I wouldn’t warn anyone away from it, as it seems at least half of readers enjoy the trek, but neither can I recommend it to anyone.

    Mostly though, thanks for the nod to The Enchanted Forest. I remember seeing previews, etc., but never watched it. Now I want to. (The true story is absolutely incredible. Kidnapped by an Amazon tribe? Wow.)

    Kerry

  10. Hi Claire –
    I’m struggling to get through it, too. I thought it was because I was reading on my iPad. Then I thought it was just me. Now I wonder – is it her? :)

  11. Admittedly this doesn’t sound like something I would go for normally. The concept sounds interesting but after reading so many negative responses I don’t think I’ll give it a try. A very insightful review though =)

  12. Great review Claire. The whole story behind this book sounds so interesting. I like the mix of the scientific and medical against nature and the Amazon. Definitely something different. The film you’ve described also sounds amazing, I love watching new things and might just have to ceck it out. :)

  13. Wonderful review. I have this on my TBR list but am really in no rush to read it. I read The Magician’s Apprentice and started Bel Canto but never finished it. Thanks for the reminder about The Emerald Forest, I love that film and the sound track:)

  14. It’s so interesting — I always look forward to your recommendations, as well as your thoughts on books I’ve read. Here’s a case where a book I’ve been so curious to read has me possibly more curious because of the questions you raise about it.

    • I’m so happy to hear that, I don’t wish to dissuade people from reading anything, as I pointed out, this book has varied responses and its always worth the learning journey from a writing perspective. Thanks Deborah.

  15. I saw this book the other day and almost bought it – I think I still might. I am like you, I have an unquenchable thirst for for adventure and travel and that’s why it’s on my radar. If I read it I’ll let you know what I thought. Thanks for the review :)

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  19. Claire,

    It’s interesting that you have reviewed a Ann Patchett novel. I just heard her a few weeks ago on the Book Lust Podcast with Nancy Pearl. The podcast was from a few years back when her novel, Run, was published.

    Patchett came across very well in that interview and I decided get her most popular novel, Bel Canto. I’m going to read and review it for my blog.

    However, your review of State of Wonder has me intrigued as well. Shucks…..LOL!!! I will stick with Bel Canto for now. But if I like it, then I will try State of Wonder.

    Thanks for your review.

    Marion

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