Regular readers will know that I rarely read and review current fiction. I have a strong contrarian streak that makes me shy away from anything getting too much attention. Yet with all of the online hoopla about Ann Patchett’s latest book I find myself in the “me too” crowd. Back in late 2000 my friend Earl handed me a copy of Bel Canto. Since Earl and I were music buddies, he rightly guessed that I would enjoy Patchett’s drama with a world-class soprano as protagonist. Once I finished Bel Canto, I went out and found all of Patchett’s other books and enjoyed them all to varying degrees.
There are two things that impress me about Patchett. The first is that I love her prose style. It is intelligent but very accessible. And it always feels right to me. Nothing seems forced. In contrast, I once listened to a radio interview with Patchett and found her to be pretentious in a way that her writing is not. (I still enjoyed the interview, but found her a little stagey–like she was playing the role of author. I think it may have been too many years hanging out with her friends from the Iowa Writing Workshop.)
The other thing that really impresses me about Patchett is her ability to write about worlds that she doesn’t inhabit. Although I love a book with a struggling writer, I am impressed by authors who steer clear of that formulation. And Patchett does it in spades. Her lastest creation is a group of drug researchers along the Amazon. There were moments in their travels up the river that made me think of Heart of Darkness, but I think that comparison doesn’t extend too deeply beyond the superficial similarity of a journey up a river into a jungle.
Having adequately sung the praises of Ms Patchett, I must say that State of Wonder didn’t feel as well thought out as her other novels. There were many provactive things that made me think (in a good, what does this say about humanity kind of way), but there were also moments that challenged me to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In no way do I think it a bad book, for me there were parts that didn’t hang together.
One paragraph of spoilers: Marina’s medical mistake was horrific, both physically and psychologically. How do doctors deal with their unavoidable mistakes? That is a head trip I am glad I don’t have to deal with. Didn’t it rip your heart out when Marina handed Easter over to the tribe? It shouldn’t have, he was misappropriated by Dr. Swenson in the first place, and naturally belonged among his tribe. And the genuine affection and the aspirations of both Anders and Marina for Easter were mired in first world paternalism as Dr. Swenson points out. But…yet…it just killed me when she handed him over. Not that he necessarily shunted off to his doom, but the incomprehension and loss that the deaf boy must have felt at that moment just killed me. And what does it say that Easter’s life is up for grabs as long as it saves Anders?
No more spoilers.
This would make a great book club book for reasons that are clear in my spoilers paragraph. So for those of you that haven’t read it, maybe it is time you did. Or if this one doesn’t sound like your thing, you really should go find some Patchett and read it.