State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
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Dr. Swenson has been working on a particular drug in the Amazon jungle for years now, but the pharmaceutical company that finances the development of the drug starts to become impatient, especially as Annick Swenson is reluctant to share any information with the company, and refuses to call, only writing sporadic letters to keep them up to date. In order to get a better overview of the situation, the company sends Dr. Marina Singh to the amazon to check on Dr. Swenson’s progress. Marina is not the first scientist to visit the Lakashi village where Annick works. Before her trip, Marina’s research partner Anders Eckman traveled to Swenson’s jungle laboratory, and it is a letter announcing his death from fever that impels Marina to take the trip. Not only is Marina nervous about travelling the amazon with its tropical climate, insects, and fevers, she’s also reluctant to meet Annick Swenson again, who used to be her mentor when she trained as a doctor.
While I enjoyed State of Wonder a lot, I find I have very little to say about it. Patchett’s prose is gentle and vivid and pulls you right into the story, when it loses its gentler aspects and becomes more insistent you read on. However, this is not a high-speed-rollercoaster read, instead, it takes its time to develop the story, only having you realise that you care about the characters a lot more than you suspected halfway through. It has some of the meandering qualities I also loved in Island of Wings.But Patchett’s prose is not the only quality that made this such an enjoyable read for me. Her characterisation is spot on. I loved how she gives you the time to truly get to know all the shades of Marina’s character, how she manages to make Anders such a vivid person seen through the eyes of those that remember him after his death, how she subtly makes the reader shift sympathies from Dr. Fox to Dr. Swenson and yet keeps both of them in their role of somewhat mysterious lone persons.
I would not say this book is realistic per se, though Ann Patchett manages to pull you along and make it all feel very natural. There are hints of the absurd: catching a huge snake with bare hands, for example. And then there’s the ending that might seem a little bit too neatly patched up even if some aspects remain open-ended.
The only real problem I had with this novel is something Jenny mentioned in her post too: the portrayal of the Lakashi in the novel. This tribe is described as a group, often functioning as a collective on a seemingly automatic pilot. They receive very little agency in the books, certainly not as individuals, except when they are either grooming Marina, or stealing her luggage. On top of that, one of the neighbouring tribes are referred to as cannibals. There’s just something that made me feel uncomfortable about all of it.
What was interesting was that Marina, Annick Swenson, and everyone who they work with at the Lakashi village, constantly debate the consequences of their interactions with the tribe. There’s a lot of discussion on the ethics of interfering in indigenous lifestyles, their medical care, their habits, etcetera. These issues are brought up on several occasions in the story in such a manner that you experience the shifts that occur in Marina and Annick’s viewpoints in particular, as different circumstances ask for different responses from both of them.
One more thing I just have to mention: I loved how so much of the cast of this book is made up of prominent female scientists.
I very much enjoyed my first experience with Ann Patchett. While I would not say the book was perfect, I do rate it among my four-five stars reads of this year. And I rather expect that this one will end up on the shortlist for the Orange Prize.
Other Opinions: Jenny’s Books, Book Addiction, Rhapsody in Books, Steph & Tony Investigate, A Bookworm’s World, Leeswammes, My Porch, I’m Booking It, S. Krishna’s Books, The Mookse and the Gripes, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Stargazerpuj’s Book Blog, Open Letters Monthly, You’ve GOTTA Read This, A Year of Reading, Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?, Amy’s Book Obsession, Bibliophile by the Sea, A Book Sanctuary, Killin’ Time Reading, A Home Between Pages, Reading on a Rainy Day, MariReads, Erin Reads, My Two Blessings, a book a week, A Musing Reviews, Regular Rumination, Walk With a Book, A Bookish Way of Life, Cardigan Girl Verity, nomadreader, In Spring it is the Dawn, Raging Bibliomania.
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