Goodreads: State of Wonder
Published: June 7, 2011
As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness.
State of Wonder isn’t a usual type of read for me, but a friend picked it up for me as a birthday gift, and I was excited to jump in, since I’ve never read anything by Ann Patchett before. I was delighted to find a subtle book that combines a narrative about the protagonist’s personal development with a plot about essential medical research being hidden in the depths of the Amazon, putting both the protagonist and the reader into the titular “state of wonder.”
This is probably a book that, if read in a school class, students would criticize for not being “relateable.” It’s not about a middle-aged white man, but it is about a middle-aged white woman, working in a lab and covertly dating her boss, thinking about her career and the what-ifs of maybe settling down and having a family before it’s “too late.” And, honestly, while this stage of life doesn’t apply to be either, I think it’s the first thing I found refreshing about the book. I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately, and I found it nice to read about someone with wildly different life concerns and perspectives on things.
I was also impressed by the prose, which is sophisticated and subtle. Patchett doesn’t tell you everything about the protagonist or the plot, but she gives you enough information to figure it out. A lot happens in the book that characters are aware of but never directly mention (things in their personal lives like romantic jealousy, or things related to the medical project being done in the Amazon that the scientists don’t want the media to jump on). I also enjoyed this sort of oblique writing about things that are visible just under the surface
And, finally, I also enjoyed the plot. It unravels slowly, as the protagonist leaves the US, spends some time in a city in Brazil, and then finally makes it to uncharted territory in the Amazon. Each setting in vividly described, and I felt as if Patchett must have visited the places she was writing about (I have no idea whether she actually did). The explanation of what exact research is being done and why people are being secretive about it unfolds slowly to these backdrops, but the pacing is just right to tantalize readers and leave them wanting to know more.
I did feel that the ending came a bit out of left field, but I think I understand the author’s reasoning for it. Things could not have ended with a picture perfect tied bow because, as is the theme of the book, the Amazon just doesn’t work like that. I think the ending also highlights that, as much as these researches respect the Amazon and some of them even seem to fit into it, they still value each other over the native inhabitants, and it’s a jolt to be reminded of it at the very end.
I really liked this one, and I recommend it, but I do think it will be a tough sell to readers who normally prefer the fact-paced action-packed plots of YA novels.