Monday, May 21, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Marg's review)

Dr Marina Singh was studying to be a doctor. After a terrible incident, she gives up that course of study and instead becomes a pharmacologist, studying cholesterol. She works for a drug company, is involved in an secret affair but other than that we don't know a lot about her. If I was to use one word only to describe her I would say that she was repressed.

She normally works closely with her lab mate, Dr Anders Eckman, but months ago he had been sent to the jungles of the Amazon to try and track down the woman who was previously Marina's lecturer, Dr Annick Swenson. Dr Swenson is in the Amazon working on developing a lucrative new medication but she is something of a maverick. She won't respond to requests for updates on where she is up to with her research and so the company have sent Dr Eckman to find out exactly how her research is going and more importantly when this drug will be ready for testing.

When they receive notification that Dr Eckman has died and been buried in Brazil, his widow wants to know more about the circumstances. Her employer still wants to know about the research project and so Marina is sent south to find out more..

In terms of setting, there are three distinct sections in this book. The first part of the book is set in Minnesota and in this world Marina is very controlled in almost every way. The first stop on her journey to the Amazon is Manaus in Brazil where she spends several weeks whilst she waits for the appearance of the mysterious Dr Swenson. Whilst there she spends time with an Australian couple, the Bovenders, who run interference for Dr Swenson, trying to stop anyone from finding where she is, what she is doing and from generally disturbing her in any way. Finally, she makes it to the research station in the jungle on the banks of a tributary of the Amazon where there are many surprises in store.

Whilst Marina undertakes a physical journey, it is more the philosophical and emotional journey that forms the core of this book. She loses her luggage more than once, and each time she becomes less reliant on her westernness and in effect ends up stripped back to her bare soul.

The research that is being undertaken is perceived to be leading to a wonder infertility drug. The women of the tribe are able to sustain healthy pregnancies well into their seventies, but there is more happening at the station than just that research and the scientists working there are doing their best to keep the other research secret until the time is right. There is discussion of the moral and ethical responsibilities related to medical research and about bringing Western ways to the remote tribes but I never found those elements to be too dry or inaccessible.

I don't want to say too much more because part of the beauty of this book is watching the story unfold.

What a surprise this book was! I had only listened to one Ann Patchett book previously (Bel Canto) and I really didn't like it. I am not sure if it would have been different if I had of actually read the book, but I thought it was slow and a bit pointless.

So why did I volunteer for this book tour then? When this book first came out, I heard Ann Patchett on several podcasts that I listen to and each time I heard her I became more and more interested in the book. Then she was one of the big name guests to appear at last year's Melbourne Writer's Festival and I went to hear her talk. She is so good in a crowded room - funny and charming, engaging and passionate about writing and books. It was a case where despite not liking the only book I had read from the author, I liked the author and so I was prepared to give her another go. I am so glad that I did.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it much more of a page turner than I was expecting it to be. The topics discussed were interesting without feeling overwhelmed with the scientific details. There was adventure and drama - a particularly gruesome scene with a snake had my heart racing - and whilst a lot of the characters were not people I would particularly like if I met them, there is a young deaf boy named Easter who has made his home in a little corner of my heart. I enjoyed reading the way the author bought a group of individuals together to form a small community in an isolated place.

If there is a weakness in the book, it was the ending which didn't totally work for me, and I know that there are lots of other reviews out there which talk about the ending being a let down and this was one of the big issues I had when I listened to Bel Canto. I enjoyed the journey so much though, that I can live with the ending, mainly because I am not sure how else the story could have been all wrapped up. We are left not knowing where Marina goes next in her life, but that is okay because I was left feeling that she knew a lot more about herself at the end of the book than she did in the beginning.

I was so pleasantly surprised by how much of a page turner I found this book. Am I brave enough to try other Ann Patchett books? Maybe in due course, but for the time being I want to savour this reading experience.



Vintage Reading said...

Yes I agree that the ending was a bit of a let-down, but I did find the book highly enjoyable. Particularly the anaconda fight! Hope it wins.

Espana said...

I was conscious throughout the entire book that the author probably didn't have a background in science or medicine. It wasn't so much how the scientific vocabulary was dropped into paragraphs superficially, although that did bother me. I just never felt like the author ever experienced research science, biotech, medical school, or any of the students or professors in that world. I felt very much like this book was written by an outsider who knows enough to keep up at dinner parties. The nightmare daddy-issue sequences were painfully boring and didn't add to the character development after the second or third time I had to read them. I honestly can't remember the last time I read a book and skipped over so many paragraphs. I kept reading because the story was just good enough and because I'd already invested the time.