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13th July
2011
written by Steph

I know that I am not the only book blogger out there who is stubborn. I’ve read plenty of posts in which readers proclaim about “refusing to give in to the hype” and steering clear of books that have shot to the top of bestseller lists and set the general public on fire. I like to think that I tend to avoid mass hits in the publishing world because they tend to be directed at readers whose tastes are different from myself, but I do know that part of my avoidance is definitely due to not wanting to give in to peer pressure and jump on the latest bandwagon. Tony is probably the first person who can tell you that I do somewhat pride myself in being difficult and contrary, so it’s no surprise that this aspect of my personality extends to my reading preferences.

All this to say that even though I have been told by people for ages that I would love Ann Patchett and that Bel Canto is one of the best books ever, I have resisted reading anything by her until now. I have a copy of Bel Canto that has languished unread for a few years now, but just when I think I’ll give it a try, someone tells me how much I will love it, and I immediately feel like I have to read anything else. When I saw that State of Wonder was being offered up for a TLC Tour, I was mildly interested, but it wasn’t until I read the brief summary of the book that I was fully intrigued. I mean, a book that involves doctors and scientists researching medicines in the Amazon sounds like heaven to me, so with that temptation before me, I asked to be part of the tour. And I promise I did so in good faith, or mostly in good faith. I admit that I wanted to like the book, but part of me also sort of hoped that I would hate it so that I could be a lone ornery drummer in a band full of Ann Patchett fans.

Alas, I must admit straight up that I did NOT hate State of Wonder and actually think that Ann Patchett is a darn good storyteller. Curses! [But as an aside, how often do you see bloggers lamenting the fact that they didn’t hate a book?!?] I didn’t quite know what to expect going in, not having the bias of previous Patchett works to give me a reference frame, but I suppose I was expecting a rather highfalutin literary novels. Which is certainly not anything to scoff at, since I love me plenty of highfalutin literary novels. Still, I was rather surprised to discover that while the writing was perfectly solid and serviceable, first and foremost, State of Wonder is a good old-fashioned adventure story. It is a book that begins with a bang and then follows through with a swift-moving plot that carries readers along for quite a journey.

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself and should share a bit about this zippy novel. It starts with Dr. Marina Singh receiving a letter from her boss (and romantic paramour) that informs her that her colleague and friend Dr. Anders Eckman has died on a field trip to the Amazon where the pharmaceutical company they both work for has been financing a research expedition aimed at developing a fertility drug. Initially Marina believes her most difficult duty involving this tragedy will be to impart the news of Anders’ death to his wife Karen, but Marina soon finds herself tasked with retracing Anders’ footsteps over to Brazil and into the Amazon where she is to discover the state of the drug (and estimated launch date) as well as procure information on how Anders died in a bid to provide his family with closure. Far from the comforts of her home in Minnesota, Marina finds herself living in her own version Heart of Darkness, traveling deep into the wildest frontier of the globe and the brinks of humanity where danger and adventure lurk around every corner. In a place where everything is strange and survival is a daily battle, Marina finds herself posing questions she never thought possible and finding answers in the most unusual of places.

So, as I said, this a book that is chockablock with intrigue and danger and plenty of thrills… It would be pretty hard for a story set in the Amazon to be banal, I think! But certainly on top of the fun story, Patchett does pose some interesting philosophical questions for the reader to mull over (if you so choose), the main one being about the extent to which we should interfere with the natural order of things. I did feel, however, that by and large, these “big picture” questions arose rather late in the novel and felt like they were presented in a bit of a superficial/obvious way. To me, State of Wonder just wasn’t one of those “deep” books. I truly did enjoy this book, but as I read I kept feeling like there was something holding it back from being great rather than merely a fun, diverting read. In the end, I think that the book did not actually speak broadly about the human condition and instead so many of the messages were specific and circumscribed to the characters that Patchett had created and featured on the page. I was entertained as I read, but I am not convinced that this book would benefit from more than a single reading, because I just don’t know that it contains much more than a cracking surface storyline. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with a book being amusing and a page-turner, but I think it would be misleading to pretend this book is the next Great American Novel or anything of that ilk because it really isn’t. What it is, however, is a fantastic summer read, certainly something that would get your through hours of lazing about on the beach, and perfect for those of us who like to armchair travel.

If there was one thing I had to say I disliked about the novel, I would say it was probably the main protagonist, Marina. The science bits were fun to a geek for me, and so I should have felt like Marina was a kindred spirit, and yet I just could not warm up to her. I don’t really know why, though I suppose I did find her rather spineless and wishy-washy at times, which is a characteristic I loath both on and off the page. Of all the characters in the novel, I think Marina was the one who came across the weakest and the least fully-realized, which is a shame because we spend so much time with her! I much preferred her intimidating ex-mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who was salty and curt but also all kinds of awesome. I love a lady who kicks ass and takes no prisoners!

Overall, I really appreciated the unalloyed, solid storytelling that Patchett offers up in State of Wonder. This really was a beguiling read that kept me hostage until it was finished. I found the ending deliciously bittersweet, in that it is a happy ending but one with a price, and I certainly wasn’t expecting some of the twists that cropped up at the end. Bottom line is that I was totally prepared to be a hater, but State of Wonder is pretty hard to find fault with. I may be stubborn but I’m no fool, so to Ann Patchett I say “Well played, madame; well played. We shall certainly meet again.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

To read others opinion on State of Wonder, check out some of these other stops on the tour:

Monday, June 20th: Life In Review

Tuesday, June 21st: The Lost Entwife

Wednesday, June 22nd: nomadreader

Thursday, June 23rd: Regular Rumination

Friday, June 24th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books

Monday, June 27th: Library Queue

Tuesday, June 28th: Reading on a Rainy Day

Wednesday, June 29th: Bibliophiliac

Thursday, June 30th: Library of Clean Reads

Friday, July 1st: The Road to Here

Monday, July 4th: A Bookish Way of Life

Tuesday, July 5th: Book Hooked Blog

Wednesday, July 6th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom

Thursday, July 7th: Wordsmithonia

Thursday, July 14th: The Little Reader

Friday, July 15th: I’m Booking It

22 Comments

  1. Lu
    07/13/2011

    I agree with you about Marina, but it was such a believable wishy-washiness than I was okay with it.

  2. 07/13/2011

    Totally with you on the spinelessness of Marina! In addition, I felt it dragged a bit in the middle. I also agree with you that the questions were particularized – it’s like those Supreme Court cases that could potentially deal with a Big Question but in the end, only address the very narrow matter at hand. Still, I’m glad I read it (if only to be in on the conversation!) :–)

  3. 07/13/2011

    I also tend to avoid books tat are being hyped, and usually have a bad reaction to them when I do read them. A handful do end up surprising me though. I have been reading very good things about this book, and think that it’s finally time to get off my butt and buy myself a copy. I haven’t read a really adventuresome book in a long while, and there is something about the plot of this book that is rather enticing to me. I can’t say that I’ve avoided Anne Patchett entirely, because I did read Bel Canto several years ago and loved it, so I know she can be one heck of a storyteller. This was a great review, Steph, and really fun to read!

  4. 07/13/2011

    I can also be one of those people who avoid hyped authors However, I read Patchett before she became hyped (back in the old days–2000) so I have never considered her one of those authors. And thankfully so. I have loved all of her books. She has many other interesting stories waiting for you.

  5. 07/13/2011

    I received a signed copy of this one from the Powell’s Indiespensable program this month and was really looking forward to reading it. I tend to shy away from the most popular books also. I guess the rebel in me just doesn’t like to conform. Glad you enjoyed it and it sounds like I have something to look forward to now.

  6. Thanks for your great review. I wrote a combined review last week on both Bel Canto and State of Wonder. I have also a point on the ending in my review. If you are interested, you can find it here:
    http://wordsandpeace.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/bell-canto-and-state-of-wonder/
    Emma @ Words And Peace

  7. 07/13/2011

    My feelings about Bel Canto were similar to yours about this book, I think. It was entertaining, but not “a great book.” I’ve been surprised to see over the years that it’s garnered so much effusive praise from so many. (Jenny, on the other hand, hated it.) I’d read Patchett again, but this particular book doesn’t appeal to me so much.

  8. I’m like you – I tend to avoid the “big thing” of the day. I’m so glad that you gave this book a chance though! I’m certain that I’ll love it even though I haven’t read any Patchett before either.

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  9. 07/14/2011

    I’m glad you liked the book. I usually don’t care about what others think about what I read, because besides reading to get educated I read for pleasure.

  10. i have yet to read anything by patchette but have heard others rave about her. i do want to read her works but have to admit that novels that are too high brow or prose-y fatigue me. i think the plot sounds good but maybe a bit much for me right now. i’m in summer mode–light clothes, light foods, and light books! :)

  11. 07/14/2011

    This was my first Patchett, too! Like you, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work. I definitely thought Marina was wishy-washy, which was annoying at times. Although my main problem with the book was the ending of the book – it was just too unrealistic and didn’t jive with the rest of the story. Overall though, the book was good and I’m glad I read it. Glad to see you enjoyed it, too! Great post! By the way, I’m the same way about books that everyone is gaga over – I tend to not want to read them either.

  12. 07/15/2011

    I’m really looking forward to getting this one as Ann Patchett is one of my favourite writers. Bel Canto is brilliant but so is The Patron Saint of Liars. It’s slow and contemplative and beautiful.

  13. [...] Wednesday, July 13th: Steph and Tony Investigate [...]

  14. Pam
    07/15/2011

    I haven’t read any Patchett but I’ve been reading such good things about this book. I’m glad it seems to be a crowd pleaser!

  15. 07/17/2011

    I really loved Bel Canto for the beauty of the writing and the mood it creates, and for its amazing dream-like quality. I wonder if this book has any of those elements? I would like to try this one at some point, but I’m a little afraid of it not living up to Bel Canto.

  16. 07/18/2011

    @ Lu: You’re right that Marina wasn’t unbelievably wishy-washy, but I guess I just hate that characteristic so much it really got on my nerves!
     
    @ rhapsody: I think that the middle did drag a bit too, but I think I was ok with that just because I was enjoying Patchett’s writing so much, and really felt like I was in Brazil… which is really preferable to being Nashville, so more time spent there was A-OK by me! ;)
     
    @ zibilee: I think my new way of dealing with books that keep cropping up everywhere is that I stop reading the reviews about them because that just inflates my expectations and I generally wind up disappointed. With this book, I knew that lots of people were talking about it and that it was supposed to be very good, but I didn’t know any specifics, so it was nice to be able to discover it all for myself.
    Also, I think this is also the first “adventure” story I’ve read in a really long time as well, so I think that also greatly added to my enjoyment!
     
    @ Thomas: Yes, I think it all depends on when you encounter a hyped author/book! Certainly I’ve added my own fuel to hype fires when it comes to authors I really love or have discovered before the majority of the population has… As I recently wrote in my Harry Potter post (and there are few books that have been greater hyped, no?), I wasn’t exactly early to that book party but have been a very vocal supporter of the books ever since I did discover them, hype be damned! :D
     
    @ Kathleen: I knew that this was going to be offered via Indiespensible, but because I had never read anything by Patchett, I just wasn’t willing to start up my membership again in case I wound up being underwhelmed yet again. Ironically, I think if I had received this though Indiespensible, this would have been my favorite installment to date!
     
    @ Emma: Thanks so much for posting and sharing your review with me. I completely agree with everything you said about State of Wonder, especially the bit about how the ending is certainly not unabashedly happy. There is hope and there is the prospect of a new beginning, but certainly one cannot discount everything the characters experienced reaching that point, and sacrifices were absolutely made in getting there.
     
    @ Teresa: I think the next time I’m in the mood for a “fun” book that has an engaging plot but doesn’t necessarily require deep intellectualizing I will try Bel Canto. We can always hope I might hate that one as Jenny did! ;)
    @ Heather: Thanks so much for having me on the tour! I’ve actually found that the “big” authors I’ve experienced for the first time via TLC tours have been some of my favorites! First Barbara Kingsolver, and now Ann Patchett… Love the way you have helped me broaden my literary horizons.

  17. 07/18/2011

    @ carolinareads: You’re right that the most important thing to take into account when it comes to books is how we personally respond to them! That said, I find it really hard to not let others’ opinions sway me given all of the book blogs I read!
     
    @ natalie: I don’t think you would find this book to high-brow or prose-y at all. There were a few parts where I had to really use my frontal lobe to get through some passages, but by and large this is a fun, fast-pace read that I didn’t feel demanded very much of me as a reader except the willingness to be carried along for one heck of a ride!
     
    @ Nadia: I know exactly what you’re referring to about the ending of the novel and what you found unrealistic. I admit that that portion certainly surprised me and certainly wasn’t likely, but it didn’t ruin the book or anything for me. I think by that part in the novel, that element of the story had ceased to be the least interesting bit for me and so its culmination wasn’t my primary focus.
     
    @ sakura: I am definitely looking forward to trying my Patchett in the future. Probably Bel Canto is next because I already own it, but I’m certainly open to trying some of her other books too.
     
    @ Pam: I think this book is a good introduction for Patchett virgins! I know some people have been slightly disappointed by it because it didn’t live up to some other favorite Patchett novel, but I didn’t have that issue to contend with.
     
    @ Dorothy W.: I definitely feel like this book was very atmospheric and great at transporting the reader into what feels like another world. Can’t say exactly how the mechanics compare to Bel Canto, but it seems to me like the two probably share the elements that you so very enjoyed about Bel Canto.

  18. 07/24/2011

    Enjoyed reading your review, Steph! It is great that you didn’t shy away from giving an opportunity to a hyped-up author and it is wonderful that she redeemed herself. I haven’t read Ann Patchett myself, but some of my friends who have keep recommending ‘Bel Canto’ to me. After reading your review, I am getting inspired to try one of her works.

  19. 07/29/2011

    I really enjoyed the novel, but you’re absolutely write about the lack of depth, which I think has to do with Marina being such a weak character.

    My thoughts are here:
    http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/07/state-of-wonder.html

  20. 08/04/2011

    @ Vishy: I like to think I know my own tastes pretty well, so while I wasn’t crazy about reading something by Patchett, I realized my aversion was irrational. I’m glad I gave her a try and am excited to dive into her other works some day!
     
    @ theoncominghope: Thanks so much for commenting! I really enjoyed reading your review as well. I always think it’s a shame when authors are let down by their central character!

  21. [...] for a second opinion?  Here’s what some others thought: Book Hooked Blog | Steph & Tony Investigate! | Sarah Laurence [...]

  22. [...] Opinions: Jenny’s Books, Book Addiction, Rhapsody in Books, Steph & Tony Investigate, A Bookworm’s World, Leeswammes, My Porch, I’m Booking It, S. Krishna’s Books, [...]

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