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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

State of Wonder: Vivid, Riveting

This doesn't happen often with novels, but Ann Patchett's 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. 


21 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this book too, as well as the reading I saw her do in LA. She's so damn smart and opinionated. I think I may have enjoyed Bel Canto more, but, nonetheless, this is still an awesome book.

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    1. Smart and opinionated, yes - but never stand-offish (at least in the few times I've now "seen" her on the web her since The Colbert Report appearance). She's awesome. Just ordered Bel Canto - can't wait!

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  2. Best part of that Colbert interview? The end when Colbert recognized she should have the last word. To repeat one small counterpoint from the comments on Colbert, though, I must remind your readers that smart people and book signings/author vists and story time all take place at the library, too. Amazon can't kill community.

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  3. This was one of my favorite books from last year. I agree, she writes wonderfully.

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    1. I need a little time yet before I also put it in "favorite of the year" category - but it stands a good chance!

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  4. Wow this sounds amazing! I am reading this one in the next month but I'll be reading it with great excitement now!

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    1. Enjoy it - it's definitely one to look forward to!

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  5. I'm so excited to hear that you liked this so much. I've heard so many mixed things, but I also thought The Getaway Car was soooo good. I'm going to be in Nashville next week, so thanks for reminding that her indie bookstore is there.

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    1. Agreed - The Getaway Car was fantastic. That little anecdote about pawning the pushy old lady with a story off onto Amy Bloom was high, high comedy. I'm jealous that you get to visit Parnassus - here's to hope you run into Ms. Patchett there! ;)

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  6. I've put off reading this book, but any review that manages to use the word 'behoove'has me intrigued :-)

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  7. I'm reading this soon (I'm working my way through the Orange Prize longlist) so I was glad to see this review, as I have seen quite a few mixed ones. It'll be my first Patchett, I'm really looking forward to it :)

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    1. I still don't get the mixed reviews - seems like a lot of the issues people had with it would disappear if they put a little more thought into it. But sometimes, there's just no accounting for taste.

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  8. I was firmly in the "did not love it" camp. While I think Patchett's writing is first-rate, I was hoping that she would have tackled the ethical issues associated with developing a drug that allows women to give birth so late in life. I did want to take Easter home with me though.

    Michele

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    1. The ethical issues were certainly part of the subtext of the modern vs. primitive theme, I think. Dr. Swenson even mentions several times, too, that the human body isn't made to have kids that late in life. Finally, there's the interplay between the malaria drug and the fertility drug - saving 800,000 lives a year plus at least that many more children with the fertility drug = ethically questionable from an overpopulation and resource management standpoint.

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  9. Great review! I loved it and gave State of Wonder five stars, too.

    I really want to read The Getaway Car. I don't have an ereader but might buy it as an ebook anyway, as it doesn't seem to be coming out in print anytime soon.

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    1. You can download the Nook or Kindle apps for your computer and read it that way (you don't actually need an ereader) - I read a couple Kindle Singles and B&N short pieces that way before I got my Nook. It's a good way to go - and you should not hesitate to read The Getaway Car. It's really friggin' good!

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  10. After loving Bel Canto, my book group read Patchett's RUN and liked it a lot. Will get this one on board soon too. Thanks! Renee

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  11. It's not even half as good as Bel Canto.

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  12. The words that come to mind when I am reading or describing Ann Patchett's books all seem to have to do with either art or music. Tapestries of words, action building to a crescendo, phrases that are haunting melodies....

    "Bel Canto" is one of my all-time favorite books, and I love her other works, although "Run" didn't strike me in the same way. As I started "State of Wonder", I was anxious to see what sort of a chord this story struck in me. (See?)

    "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 the 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."

    "State of Wonder" was a moving, emotional, heart wrenching and awe inspiring story. I think I even turned the pages more slowly as I tried to absorb the words and the images of the Amazon jungle that Patchett brings forth in this wonderful novel.

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