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