Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Jennifer Poff Cooper of Christiansburg. Jennifer is a graduate student at Hollins University.
Despite having read and thoroughly enjoyed two of Ann Patchett’s previous books, the award-winning “Bel Canto” and also “Run,” I was reluctant to read “State of Wonder” because of the science fiction element to it. However, after learning that it was the common book for freshmen at Hollins University this fall, I decided I might give it a chance. The decision was cemented when I attended a talk by Patchett at Hollins earlier in the fall. The freshmen in the audience could not ask enough questions about the book, which piqued my interest. In addition Patchett was a likeable speaker, which only served to remind me what a fine author she is.
“State of Wonder” centers on physician turned pharmacologist Marina Singh, who is tapped by her employer, a large pharmaceutical company, to travel to the Amazon to follow up on the creation of a drug that promotes fertility of post-menopausal women. The problem is that in order to complete her mission, Marina must find the researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson, who has disappeared into the jungle and with whom Marina shares a mysterious past. In addition, Marina is trying to sort out the death of her predecessor, who apparently died of fever in the Amazon, leaving a wife and three sons who want answers to exactly what happened to their loved one.
During her journey, Marina meets a cast of memorable characters. Dr. Swenson is the strongest of these, with her no-nonsense manner and total conviction in her research. The reader sees the relationship between Marina and Dr. Swenson evolve during the course of the book from one of teacher-student to one of mutual respect. Marina takes a shine to a deaf native boy named Easter, who makes her question her decision to stay single and childless. Marina’s relationship with her boss, Mr. Fox, is a weak point. A liaison of convenience rather than true love, it has no depth and only serves to propel the plot forward. Marina’s other romantic liaison (I won’t be a spoiler) is out of character and mars the ending of the book.
“State of Wonder” contains other elements of good drama which Patchett weaves together seamlessly. There are personality conflicts, infidelity, secrets, wilderness exploration, science, medicine, and parenting. Patchett’s writing style is generally lyrical, especially her descriptions of the Amazon. At times, though, the prose is heavy-handed as with the scientific explanations and stilted dialogue.
The biggest strength of this book is that, in the course of its narrative, it raises many ethical questions. Is it acceptable for post-menopausal women to give birth? Who may or may be experimented on during the search for a cure to deadly diseases like malaria? What is the responsibility of the first world to the natives when it enters the third world? How does one decide whose life is worth more in a situation where two people cannot both be saved? Ambiguity also lingers at the end as to what happened in several storylines. These dilemmas are sure to keep book clubs busy discussing.
Though the engaging aspects of the book are many, this is not my favorite of Patchett’s works because I found the others I read more relatable than the exotic “State of Wonder.” Suspending belief for the fertility drug was easier than I imagined. What was difficult was to focus so much on living in the jungle as the natives and researchers did. In the end, “State of Wonder’ seemed to be more about things than about people.
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