Thursday, January 5, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I am an old fashioned reader who physically turns the pages of books and marks passages that I particularly like with a colored flag. I was talking recently with a friend who reads books on his Kindle and, of late, on his iPhone. Not having tried reading in these alternative ways, I don't quite get it, and I particularly don't understand how reading on a small device like a phone can be enjoyable.   I loved what he said, though, which is that when he's reading a good book, he "disappears" into it no matter what the media.  That's a concept I understand and was fortunate to experience recently as I disappeared into Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.

Patchett is one of my favorite authors, and her Bel Canto and Magician's Assistant are high of my list of great reads. Her writing is beautiful, and her character development is unparalleled. In State of Wonder, Patchett drops us into the life of Marina Singh, a doctor working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota who has just learned via Aerogram that her colleague and friend Anders Eckman died while on company business in Brazil. When she hears the news, she "understood why people say 'You might want to sit down.' There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles." Marina is eventually persuaded to follow in Anders' footsteps to the Amazon. Dr. Fox, her romantic interest and CEO of the company, believes that Marina is going in order to complete Anders' mission to find out the development status of a remarkable fertility drug from the indomitable Dr. Annick Swenson. In reality, Marina's primary motivation in embarking on the trip is to comply with the request of Anders' wife Karen to find out what happened to her husband.

State of Wonder takes us from Minnesota to Manaus to the Amazon, introducing us to fascinating experiences and characters along the way.  We meet the Bovenders, an Australian couple who house sit for Dr. Swenson and act as sentries guarding against interlopers--including people from the company funding her research--who might interfere with her work.  We meet Easter, a wonderful deaf-mute boy who was taken in as a young child by Dr. Swenson and who becomes Marina's close companion. We meet the Lakashi tribe who stand on the banks of the river with burning branches to greet arrivals to their "village" and who express their happiness and pride with open-handed slaps.  And of course we meet Dr. Swenson, a 72-year old force of nature who has spent much of her adult life commuting between the "real world" teaching ob-gyn residents at Johns Hopkins and the jungle where she works on her research.  Swenson is abrupt, outspoken, and brilliant.   In one of their first conversations, Swenson tells Marina about the "fatal mistake" she made many years earlier of sewing up the head of a young girl that had been inadvertently hit by a machete.  From then on, Swenson's research has been interrupted by tribes people with ills that can't be taken care of by the local witch doctor or mid-wife.  "What would the alternative have been?" Marina asks with respect to the girl.  Swenson is quite clear in her response.  "The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived.  That is how one respects indigenous people."  Notwithstanding these views, Swenson has become the "go to" person in times of crisis for the tribe and has developed a very special relationship with them that facilitates her research.

As I was reading State of Wonder I realized that I had no idea where the story was going nor, frankly, did I care because I was enjoying the journey so much.  As I neared the end of the book, I thought I had figured it out only for the plot to take an unexpected turn.   State of Wonder is truly a wondrous book that will engross you from the start.  I hope it's not another four years before Patchett publishes her next work.  I, for one, am waiting anxiously.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Nanette! This makes me want to read the book. I will have to check it out. I am really enjoying your blog. Keep up the great work! Hope things are good in FL. xoxo Mary Lee


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