Saturday, August 6, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I glided through Ann Patchett’s new book State of Wonder in my own state of wonder with her marvelous writing, the titillating theme, and my faith that this was going to be a tour de force to rival one of her best books yet, Bel Canto! But at some point, or several actually, I began to wonder if it was really as wonderful as I'd hoped.

Dr. Marina Singh is a demure employee of a pharmaceutical company and, of course we all know that demure women are good and pharmaceutical companies are soulless moneygrubbers. But I shook off my premonitions and clung to Patchett like a nursing baby.

Singh is demurely having an affair with the CEO of the company, who she religiously calls “Mr. Fox,” even after they’ve swapped body juice. She is not, however, having an affair with her co-worker, Anders Eckman, despite Anders’ wife’s suspicions - strange, but not strange enough to derail my wondrous journey with Patchett.

Anders Eckman (Singh’s co-worker), having gone to the Amazon to check on a project, dies while down there, so Mr. Fox sends Singh to the Amazon to find out what the hell is going on. But the project leader, Annick Swenson (the star of the book in my book), is too busy to be bothered by Eckman’s death, the pharmaceutical company or Marina Singh, and so the mystery builds!

Elements are added that add to the drama of the book (i.e., anacondas, a few more characters, some of which are interesting, wild back stories on Singh and Swenson, an endearing mute boy, women who chew on trees to extend their fertility and provide immunity to malaria, psychedelic mushrooms, medical emergencies, etc.) At this point, I’m still along for the ride but getting a little more uncomfortable.

However, as the drama crescendoed, the whole story began to fall apart. Without totally giving away the plot, I’ll throw out these clues:
1. Why would 65-year old women want to have babies?
2. Why would a pharmaceutical company let a project go rogue?
3. Why couldn’t this book have been about Annick Swenson?
4. And finally, why the hell would Marina Singh … well, never mind, I can’t bring myself to say it.

Read it? Yes, it’s beautifully written, as only Patchett can (pictured). But go into it knowing that the story is flawed. Better yet, read two other better books by Patchett, Bel Canto and/or Truth and Beauty.


  1. I read and agree with your comments on Patchett's book. I thought I had just lost the trail in this one, as I felt it should be more clear where she was going and she didn't follow the obvious plot lines I expected (not that it's necessary for a fully engrossing read, but it can be detracting as in this one).

  2. In this book, Patchett spins her own ten days of experience in the Amazon into a tale whose slowly moving course has many tributaries feeding its river of narrative. The convincing realism of Patchett's description of the primeval rain forest environment, given her brief actual stay, is a powerful testimony to her powers of observation.

    I'm certain that I will not be the first to observe that State of Wonder is very loosely analogous to a modern day Heart of Darkness. The protagonist, Merina Singh, sets aside her comfortable Minnesota MD/Ph.D life as a pharmaceutical company employee to journey up the Amazon. Dr. Singh has a two-fold mission: bringing closure to the death of a colleague, and assessing progress on a drug that her company has invested millions on.