I remember reading Bel Canto in college and falling in love. Reading that book was like entering another world and I wish I had been recording my thoughts on books then. All I have is a dreamy memory of being completely enchanted and miserably sad when the book ended. For whatever reason, I haven’t revisited Patchett until now. There were many things about State of Wonder that reminded me of reading Bel Canto, but I did not close the covers of this novel feeling wholly satisfied.
Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for Vogel, a pharmaceutical company whose biggest project is a new fertility drug that Marina’s former professor, Dr. Swenson, is developing in the Amazon. Marina’s coworker, Anders Eckman, went to Brazil to find Dr. Swenson and get an update on her progress before his untimely death by fever. Marina, plagued by Mrs. Eckman’s insistence that he is not dead, and by her boss and lover Dr. Fox’s order, goes to Brazil and tries to find out what exactly happened to her friend.
Patchett is a brilliant writer. Her prose is rich and I could probably open State of Wonder and find a beautiful sentence on any page. She has this way of writing that I just adore. It’s slightly detached, as if the narrator is above everything that is happening, not necessarily omniscient, but not part of everything either. I realize that that description is less than satisfactory, but sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly why I love Ann Patchett so much. It’s an almost unconditional love, that even when I see problems in a story, I still love it.
And State of Wonder is like that. Oh, there are problems here. It is not a perfect book, not in the way I felt Bel Canto was a nearly perfect book. I struggled suspending my disbelief at some of the events, but fortunately, never at the science. There is a delightful science fiction element here, where the tribe Dr. Swenson is studying can bear children well into their 70s, because of the bark of a tree they chew. I don’t know a lot about the science of fertility, but the fact is that I believed everything that was happening in this novel. I believed in every single character, in their actions, in their voice, in their movements. I believed everything, until the ending unraveled it all.
Patchett has been known to give a happy ending, especially one that comes about from coincidence, but the problem here is not necessarily that there is a happy ending, despite the fact that it is laced with tragedy, but that we aren’t given any time to sit with that ending. It comes so abruptly, when I felt we were just really starting to get to the heart of Marina, her struggle, her beliefs. It was the kind of book where I’m looking at the amount of pages left and wondering how on earth the author is going to wrap it all up in so few pages. And the answer is, well, quickly. I could have read another 100 pages, I wanted to read another 100 pages. I wanted more, not necessarily more explanation or more reasoning, but more time to sit with the coincidences and to believe them. Because though I believed almost every moment of this novel, I did not believe the most crucial coincidence of this entire story.
But does that really matter? In the end, this is still a book that I can describe to you with the word love. Ann Patchett is a writer than can totally and completely transport me into another world, another mind. She can set a story in the Amazon, without relying on stereotypes or sensationalism. With Patchett’s stories, I feel everything her characters feel. She writes beautiful, lyrical prose that often reads like poetry. With all of that, an ending that I’m not entirely satisfied with seems like a small complaint.
So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve read everything else