State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is a remarkable novel penned by an insightful writer. Her protagonist, Marina, is not a paragon of strength and confidence. She is a quiet and introspective woman who left medicine for pharmeceuticals—a safer choice (or so she thought!). Her lab partner, Anders, has gone to the Amazon to check on the progress of a researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is phone-less and swallowing the company’s money while not sharing her results on a hush-hush project. Anders dies in the jungle, so our quiet, secretive protagonist follows.
Dr. Swenson is an enigmatic, charismatic pioneer of science. She is frank to the point of offense and single-minded in the way of those wholly devoted to their work. Every conversation with Swenson is a painful exercise for the other party and written with such an authentic voice I found myself recalling my own days of being in thrall to a female mentor who disregarded emotions as weakness but understood them well enough to be manipulative. In her intensity and focus Swenson is written perfectly. Marina eventually (inevitably) joins Dr. Swenson deep in the jungle where she lives and conducts research among the Lakashi, a tribe whose women bear children into their seventies.
One of the themes of the novel is fertility, certainly, both literal and scientific, but the other is mothering or parenting, the myriad ways to love a child and love onself and one’s partner. Mothering covers the broad spectrum from giving birth to adopting to caring for, teaching, and letting go of a child—and this novel touches on all those elements in ways subtle and thoughtful.
It would be too simple to say Marina becomes someone new—Patchett is too careful and intelligent to give us a simple story. Although her stories usually focus on big events in a character’s life, her characters are not transformed by events but by moments of clarity and understanding about themselves within the framework of those larger events. Patchett handles her subjects with ease, navigating the perilous waters of obstetrics and anthropological concepts like cultural relatively while never fogetting the overriding power of human behavior and the desire to protect those we love and fall prey to our own natures. Throughout the book her writing is smooth and compulsively readable, seemingly effortless but perfectly constructed prose.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

  1. Karen Lewis

    Oooh. I have loved Patchett’s work and very much look forward to reading this book.

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