State of Wonder literally gave me chills. The novel's not frightening, or particularly sad, or anything like that. What it is, simply, is just chill-inducingly good.
As a bit of background, it's taken me just over a month to go from zero to a nearly-slobbering-all-over-myself-holy-crap-she's-awesome Ann Patchett fan. After her appearance on The Colbert Report, in which she laid the smack down on the evils of Amazon (it's worth a watch!), I bought State of Wonder from her Nashville indie bookstore, Parnassus Books, so I could get a signed copy. In the meantime, I read her short memoir on the writing life titled The Getaway Car — which is so good it made me want to quit my job immediately to write a novel. And then, I finished State of Wonder. And it's incredible.
State of Wonder is about a 42-year-old pharmacology researcher named Marina, who must travel to the Amazon jungle to try to learn two things. First, she has to determine how eccentric 73-year-old researcher Dr. Swenson, in the employ of Marina's pharmaceutical company Vogel to develop a fertility drug, is progressing. Second, she must find out what happened to the her colleague Anders who died trying to complete a similar mission.
What's most striking about this story is the number of times the theme of modern vs. primitive emerges and than intersects with other themes, like love, family and loyalty. It's a relatively fast-moving story (most of the time), but it definitely behooves you to slow down and think it through. And when you stop to think and then realize how intricately constructed it actually is...chills.
The other hallmark of the novel is the vividness of Patchett's writing — we all learn in creative writing seminars that to describe adequately, you must appeal to all the senses. Patchett is in the Hall of Fame in this regard. We know what her boat smells like, what noises the insects in the jungle make, how the stars look at night, etc. Hers is a style so elegant and smooth, it's hard to believe she's describing (and putting her readers smack dab in the middle of) one of the most wild, untamed places in the world.
I hadn't realized until I finished the novel that there are widely varying opinions — a lot of people loved it, but a lot of people were annoyed by it; said annoyance seemingly stemming from Marina as a character, as well as what some considered implausible plot twists. I didn't see it that way at all. I'm firmly in the "loved it" camp — especially regarding the supposedly strange ways the story veers. Will Marina find the truth about Anders? About the drug? About the Kurtz-esque Dr. Swenson?
Five stars. Very highly recommended.