book #1: state of wonder by ann patchett


patchett’s sixth novel is reminiscent of joseph conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’. both involve expeditions into all but untouched regions of the world to discover the whereabouts and activities of a mysterious charismatic figure. ‘heart of darkness’ dealing with the enigmatic trading agent kurtz in the congo and ‘state of wonder’ centered on the zealous researcher dr. annick swenson in the remote reaches of the amazon. both involve an innocent (charles marlow and dr. marina singh respectively) who are charged to investigate these shadowy characters. and both explore themes of morality, colonialism, racism, and fear.

patchett’s story centers on the expansion of scientific knowledge, as dr. swenson has been sent by the fictional pharmaceutical company vogel to research a tribe of amazonians, the lakashi, who are phenomenally able to produce offspring late into adulthood. she has essentially gone rogue, failing to contact the company with updates on her progress, and after an agent of the company dies mysteriously while investigating her work, it falls upon dr. singh to do a follow up visit to swenson’s remote laboratory. it is refreshing that patchett has women at the heart of her story considering it involves research science which is still a male dominated field. and thankfully (and sadly unique to many female characters in literature) singh and swenson discuss and act upon their own needs rather than simply upon the whims of their male counterparts.

the book can be slow and for much of it i wondered where it was going (especially after dr. swenson enters too early in the novel thus killing the beautiful tension of her mystery). but it’s a book where the final 50 pages make everything that comes before so worth it. the final moments are shocking and completely unexpected, but simultaneously make perfect and satisfying sense within the framework of the narrative. the ethical dilemmas are so masterfully presented by patchett the novel reaches truly nerve-wracking heights at its crescendo. there is a particular heartbreaking decision involving dr. singh that leaves an aching image for the reader at once so simple and yet profoundly disturbing. i honestly said ‘no’ out loud during this particular moment finding myself desperately wishing for the characters to have a chance to rethink their choices. it’s deeply effective.

definitely a recommended book, you just have to stick with it through some sections that you won’t realize the importance of until the complete picture is in place.

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5 thoughts on “book #1: state of wonder by ann patchett

    • i started 1Q84, but didn’t get through it yet. i think i’ll probably just start over. not sure if i’m ambitious enough to include it in my 52 books this year, might be a bit long for me to get through in a week! are you enjoying it?

      • It’s good but I agree it is wordy. I find myself skimming many parts that seem to be just discussing what they are eating… etc.

  1. Ann Patchett has always had a tendency to be a little wordy, but her novels are unlike any others. I heard a radio interview with her when State of Wonder came out where she talked about how technology makes it more challenging to get her characters into the situations she wants to write – so she goes through all those plot twists to make sure they don’t have their cell phones, etc., because being cut off from others is such an integral part of her story. If you haven’t read Bel Canto, her earlier novel, I highly recommend it.

    • thank you for your thoughts. the way you describe the hoops patchett goes through to arrive at the circumstances she wants for her characters makes perfect sense, especially in relation to ‘state of wonder’ and the isolation she wanted to achieve. fascinating.

      i didn’t mind her wordiness at all, and her language is beautiful, but you do get that sensation of floating, wondering where you’re heading. this being my first of her books that i’ve read, i wasn’t sure i could trust it all to pay off, but it definitely did.

      ‘bel canto’ is actually the first of her books that i looked at and for no particular reason chose ‘state of wonder’ instead, so i look forward to reading that in the near future also. thank you for the recommendation.

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