Wednesday, February 08, 2012

State of Wonder

I have started and quit almost every one of Patchett's novels. In fact, I think Taft is the only one I haven't started at all. While I wouldn't say I dislike her writing, I can say that her novels start slowly. State of Wonder is no exception, but I am tickled to report that I FINISHED IT! Haha!

From the moment I read the blurb, I knew I'd pick this book up and try Patchett's work yet again. Though the book was not a perfect one, the premise is fantastic...

Note: I tried to come up with my own blurb, but given the complicated plot and a severe case of brain drain, I gave up and pilfered the publisher's synopsis. It does the job.

Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations.

Straight off, I was taken with the idea of a romp through the Amazon with Patchett's characters. Dr. Swenson is an enigmatic matriarch to her colleagues and the Lakashi tribe alike; she's thoroughly difficult for Marina to read and given their uneasy teacher/student relationship, Marina is freakin' scared of her. For Marina to find herself in a number of situations wherein Dr. Swenson depends on her was thoroughly transforming for the character of Marina Singh. It was a worthwhile transformation to follow through this novel, and Patchett did a wonderful job characterizing Singh and Swenson.

I was also very taken with the peripheral characters in the novel including the deceased Anders Eckman and his wife, Karen. The brilliant, deaf boy, Easter. And I can't forget the majestic Mr. Fox, one of the pharmaceutical company big-wigs and Marina's secret lover. The interplay between such a complicated cast of characters made for a rich novel and convincing story.

It did take me a while to sink into this novel thoroughly as those opening chapters were slow in traditional Patchett style. However, as I moved through the book I was glad she took the time to introduce me to all of the characters and also to Brazil itself. In the early part of her journey, Marina spends time in Manaus and later heads off into the rainforest. The setting itself is the most vibrant character in the novel.

The second half of the book, Marina's time in the rainforest interacting with the Lakashi tribe and following Dr. Swenson's research, comprised the quickest of the novel's pacing, but some of it struck me as unbelievable. While I loved that Dr. Swenson was such a bitch and had such strong control over her charges, I found it hard to believe that a tribe with which she could hardly communicate would bow down at her feet. Meh. Not so much. I also wish Marina had had a bit more difficulty settling into life with the tribe. There were some dramatic moments, but I felt that Patchett put all of her effort into making the characters realistic in the early pages of the novel, the tribe itself suffered from a lack of attention in comparison. I also felt that Patchett went for some cheap plot twists. I can't be specific without giving too much away, but some of the turns the story took were surprising only because they were so obvious.

Beyond the characterization and beyond some of the novel's shortfalls, it was a supremely interesting read for the ethical questions it posed. Dr. Swenson's research holds huge ethical implications and could change medicine entirely. I thought it really interesting that she put herself into some touchy situations when she was really just a big old snake in the grass. She was one of those characters I wanted to believe but always suspected of doing despicable things. She was a hard one to read and that makes her all the more worthwhile to read.

While I expected State of Wonder to blow the top of my head off with its wonderfulness, I found it a little too uneven for that and a little too predictable in spots. I'm still glad I read this book, and I would recommend it to almost anyone for the well-written characters, the unique setting, and the wonderful ethical dilemmas. It probably won't make my top ten for 2012, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it fares in the Tournament of Books.


Rating:
Snuggle (one-armed hug) -- Skewer


Pub. Date: June 2011
Publisher: Harper
Format: Hardcover
ISBN-13: 978-0062049803
Source: Library



21 comments:

  1. "I have started and quit almost every one of Patchett's novels." that is interesting to know. I haven't read any others, but I started reading this one in Novemeber and I think I can say I've abandoned it now. I agree it was very uneven - I loved some scenes, but then it would get a bit dull. I got to the middle section and it got slower and slower. I haven't bothered to pick it up for a few weeks now, so I'm going to let it go. Glad to know I'm not the only one abandoning her books.

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  2. I have to admit I read 2 books by Patchett and loved them both. I was surprised you did not have any blurb on the ending specifically, so many bloggers talk about it, and they usually hate her endings. I think there's really something special in her writing about how she ties up a book, and it's even to my liking. I guess that's what makes the blogosphere interesting, isn't it. here is my double review of State Of Wonder and Bel Canto: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/07/05/bell-canto-and-state-of-wonder/

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  3. I think I liked this one a bit more than you did, but I think we can both agree on its strangeness and the uniqueness of the characters. I have read and enjoyed one other book by Patchett, and I would try others from her. I really appreciate the honesty and forthright aspects of this review, and I am glad I read it, because it gave me a different perspective. Thanks, Andi!

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  4. This was the first Patchett novel I have tried, and I loved it. I'm a little nervous about trying her again, because I've seen such mixed opinions -- people seem to either love her work, or, like your previous experiences, have trouble getting through it. Not sure which one I'll try next.

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  5. The first (and so far only) Patchett I read was Bel Canto. I thought the writing was lovely but the plot was lacking. I wasn't too interested in the characters or their fates. I always said I would try another Patchett, but two years later I still haven't. Maybe sometime soon. I really would like to give her another try.

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  6. Andi,
    I've never attempted any of her novels based on the fact that I've seen so many reviews like this one. I do not doubt that she's a brilliant writer, but it just doesn't seem like the right work for me.

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  7. I was a bit curious about Patchett because I just finished a book by her mother, Jeanne Ray. Had never heard of either of them before. Ray's book wasn't really my cuppa, and it sounds like this one wouldn't be, either (without intending to criticise either one)! Thanks for the detailed and honest review.

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  8. Thanks for the honest review, Andi. I'm always up for a good ethical and since I now know the beginning is slow I'll adjust my reading accordingly - when I finally get around to reading this, one day or one year - so many freakin' books to read!

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  9. I thought this book was uneven too. I loved the beginning, thought the middle dragged, and didn't like the ending.

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  10. I've heard some mixed reviews of this one. Patchett reminds me of Kingsolver. People either love her or they don't. I've got the book on my shelf and will look forward to reading it and deciding which side of the fence I will fall on.

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  11. This is an author that I've considered reading for some time now. I really want to read Bel Canto by this author but this one is on my TBR list too. Great review!

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  12. I haven't read anything by her, though I keep picking up Bel Canto and considering it. Have you read that, or was it one of the DNF's? I hadn't heard much about this one, until your review. I like that you are fair with the book, offering what's good, and what's not so strong, in the book.

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  13. I actually was a little disappointed in the way it explored its ethical questions. It raised a lot of things but then didn't, I don't know, it didn't get into them enough to satisfy me. But I did like the book! which is a first for me and Ann Patchett.

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  14. I really cannot wait to read this one. I've managed to avoid any spoilers and really need to get to it soon.

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  15. It maybe that Bel Canto will be the only one of her books I will actually end up liking. I read it first and have read three or four more after that including this one. They all disappointed me. This was just too medically impossible and inconsistent for
    me:(

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  16. The only Patchett book I've had any luck with was Run. But I haven't tried this one...yet.

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  17. You get farther than I did. I don't even start Patchett's books. I merely look at them on my shelves and then pick up something else! Bad me.

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  18. This is the first of Patchett's books that I've read, but it made me curious to read more -- I thought her writing was beautiful.

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  19. Another book on which we completely agree, Andi! Slow start, great pace middle to end, good characters, unbelievable plot. And I might add, I hated the end. But there was some gorgeous writing in there. Uneven, yes.

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  20. I read Bel Canto last year and was underwhelmed, but I did win this one in a giveaway so I'm prepared to give her another shot!

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  21. I think it's so interesting you abandon Patchett. I've read two of her novels now (this one, which was my favorite read of 2011) and Bel Canto, which was a 5-star read for me. There is something magical for me about her writing, setting and characters. I'm transported and enamored by everything. I think you might enjoy The Getaway Car, her short (50 pages or so) e-single memoir on writing. It was fascinating to me!

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