Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett


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.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

  1. (Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea July 19, 2011 / 8:27 pm

    I just finished this one Thomas, so I was comfortable reading your spoilers, and yes yes yes it tore me up. I love how this story unfolded, and the setting and details about the project were fabulous, but I was a bit disappointed with some underdeveloped characters. Will work on my review this weekend hopefully.


  2. rhapsodyinbooks July 19, 2011 / 8:49 pm

    Spoilery comments ahead:

    “Bad baby deliveries” has always been very big business in the legal plaintiffs bar. I can't imagine that Marina wasn't booted out, rather than just resigning. Nevertheless, I'm glad she *did* change careers.

    I wasn't too bothered with her handing Easter over from the standpoint of Easter's future, since I tended to agree with Dr. Swenson that Easter was totally resourceful enough to get right back out again if he desired. For Marina and Anders I think it was a Scylla and Charibdys sort of thing with no good options. I personally don't think I could have done it, but I didn't blame them for making what was probably the more “reasonable” choice (given Easter's resourcefulness and the unlikelihood that he would end up as food in his birth tribe).

    I found other things didn't quite add up though, but I got the impression it was all part of her construction of an elaborate *referential* work (i.e., Heart of Darkness and Orpheus). Still, it was irritating. I wasn't extremely enamored of this book, although it was certainly memorable in some respects.


  3. Mystica July 19, 2011 / 9:56 pm

    Tearing one up is not my favourite genre as I keep brooding over it for weeks! Shantharam is for me disturbing enough – taking it in small doses.


  4. betsy July 19, 2011 / 11:15 pm

    Interesting. Patchett is reportedly looking at opening an independent bookstore here in Nashville. Borders closed, and all this city has left are second hand places like McKay.


  5. Jessica July 20, 2011 / 5:44 am

    I have had Bel Canto sitting on my shelf for freaking ages so I think I should get reading it really.


  6. Laura July 20, 2011 / 6:08 am

    I've been intrigued by the reviews on this one, because I really enjoyed Bel Canto, too. I've also been a bit reticent because of a similar contrarian streak. But your review has convinced me I should read this book. Thanks!


  7. JoAnn July 20, 2011 / 8:03 am

    Skipped the spoiler paragraph, but enjoyed your thoughts on Patchett. I've read all her books and will read this, too… maybe even with my book club. The Magician's Assistant is my favorite.


  8. Amy July 20, 2011 / 8:24 am

    Generally I'm a big Patchett fan, so I was really looking forward to this one. But I got off to a bad start with it, as the opening scenes are in Eden Prairie, where I live, and she got a lot of things wrong (including the name of our international airport, something a quick Google search would have caught). At that point, I just didn't trust her anymore and could never suspend enough disbelief to disappear into the story. As badly as I wanted to.


  9. Thomas at My Porch July 20, 2011 / 10:17 am

    Diane: The jungle details made me itchy as I was the one being bitten by all the bugs.

    Rhapsody: It is interesting that Dr. Swenson lectured Marina on her desire to take Easter back to civilization even though she herself had a less than rational attachment to the boy.

    Mystica: Always impressed when an author can make it happen.

    Betsy: That would be cool. Just think of the friends she could get to come and do readings.

    Jessica: Exactly.

    Laura: I think those book tours, that can have a new blogger writing about it every day can actually do some harm–at least to those of us who read book blogs regularly.

    JoAnn: I think The Magician's Assistant is my favorite as well. You don't often come across people who have read that one.

    Amy: Being from Minnesota myself, I found the Minnesota details in general to be too obvious–they stuck out for all the wrong reasons.


  10. Amy July 20, 2011 / 10:19 am

    Exactly, Thomas. It's like she had never been here, did some cursory research, but tried too hard to make it “authentic.” And still screwed it up.


  11. Steph July 21, 2011 / 4:12 pm

    This was my first Patchett and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I found your story about thinking Ann Patchett in person might be a bit pretentious to be quite on the money because that is how she has always seemed to me. Not to pull a Holden Caulfield, but she sometimes seems a bit phony to me.

    That said, I did like this book, though I certainly don't think it's the Best! Book! Ever! as some of the effusive reviews of it (even in the mainstream media) seem to make it out to be. It was an enjoyable summer romp, was a good balance of literary and page-turner, and was overall pretty fun to read. It has definitely made me curious to read some of her other books, because I'd be curious to see if they do more than scratch the surface, which is ultimately how I found this book.


  12. Harvee Lau December 9, 2012 / 9:56 am

    I am very late in reading this book and just picked it up from the bookstore on Friday and finished it yesterday. It drew me in completely, and yes, there were parts that stressed credibility, but then, the story is really about greed and the drug companies, I thought. Loved the points you made in your review and linked to your post in my own review.


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