State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Finished on July 3, 2020
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)
Years ago, Marina Singh traded the hard decisions and intensity of medical practice for the quieter world of research at a phamaceutical company, a choice that has haunted her life. Enveloping herself in safety, limiting emotional risk, she shares a quiet intimacy with her widowed older boss, Mr. Fox, and a warm friendship with her colleague Anders Eckman. But Marina's security is shaken when she learns that Anders, sent to the Amazon to check on a field team, is dead--and Mr. Fox wants her to go into the jungle to discover what happened.
Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the unknown, down into the Amazonian delta, deep into the dense, insect-infested jungle, to find answers from the company's research team. Led by the formidable Dr. Annick Swenson, the scientists are looking into the development of a new drug that could have a profound impact on Western society. But the team has been silent for two years, and Dr. Swenson does not like interlopers inserting themselves into her work, as Marina well knows. The eminent and fiercely uncompromising doctor was once her mentor, the woman she admired, emulated, and feared. To fulfill her mission, Marina must confront the ghosts of her past, as well as unfulfilled dreams and expectations--on a journey that will force her to make painful moral choices and take her to the depths of her own heart of darkness.
A rich narrative, lush with atmosphere and full of deeply realized characters, packed with amazing twists and surprises--encounters with an anaconda, cannibals, death, and birth--State of Wonder is Ann Patchett's most enthralling and confident novel, a tale that will leave readers in their own state of wonder, examining their own values and beliefs.
Bravo! Every reader knows the joy of discovering an outstanding read and State of Wonder is a literary gem. I have owned an ARC of Ann Patchett's novel since early 2011, but wasn't drawn to it until recently. Perhaps I hesitated due to the setting (I do not like spiders or snakes) and although there are a few scenes involving those, I only held my breath once or twice, anxiously awaiting the outcome of those encounters. I have two other books by Patchett (Commonwealth and The Dutch House) in my TBR stacks and it was this stockpile that inspired me to finally move this older work to my summer reading shelf.
State of Wonder is a slow burn and it wasn't until Marina reached the research facility in the jungle that I became fully invested in the story. As mentioned in the publisher's blurb, the characters are fully realized, many of whom I came to care about greatly and bringing to mind Mary Doria Russell's wonderful cast of characters in her exceptional novel, The Sparrow (another all-time favorite work of literary fiction). The acerbic Dr. Swenson and mute Easter, as well as helpful and protective Milton, stole my heart. Speaking of The Sparrow, I found myself reflecting on that narrative as I read State of Wonder, as both involve the interaction between scientists and doctors and an indigenous society in which the language and social mores are not shared. There are surprises and twists in both of these novels and the suspenseful plots keep the pages turning.
It was as if Dr. Swenson had vanished from the boat, as surely as Easter had vanished from it when he went over the side. Marina watched the hammock until its motion had settled. It was a magic trick: wrap her in a blanket and she's gone. The quiet that was left without her was layered, subtle: at first Marina heard it only as silence, the absence of human voices, but once her ear had settled into it the other sounds began to rise, the deeply forested chirping, the caw that came from the tops of trees, the chattering of lower primates, the incessant sawing of insect life. It was not unlike the overture of the opera in which the well-trained listener could draw forth the piccolos, the soft French horn, a single meaningful viola.and
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. If you pay any attention at all you’ll realize that you could never convert them to your way of life anyway. They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river. The point, then, is to observe the life they themselves have put in place and learn from it.
I've read two other books by Patchett, but this may be my favorite, with Bel Canto in a close second place. I liked The Magician's Assistant, but didn't feel it had the same rich detail as the others.
If one were to review my annual top ten lists, literary fiction is undoubtedly the winner every time. Novels such as The Sparrow, The Help, Beach Music, All the Light We Cannot See, Atonement (at least the first time around), The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Cutting for Stone, Flight Behavior, Ordinary Grace and A Gentleman in Moscow are all richly descriptive and peopled with memorable characters. These are the sort of books that pull me in and stay with me for years, if not decades, after I finish the final page. They're the books that I long to read again in order to not only discover something I may have missed, but to return to the wonderful characters whom I miss as if they were actual friends. And, they're the books that I recommend to everyone who loves great literature. So, if by chance, you missed reading this novel, I urge you to get a copy. I'm already looking forward to my second read, which might be in the audio format rather than print. Highly recommend!