Thursday, June 23, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Every so often as you read your way through the year, one book just reaches out, grabs you, and doesn't let go until the last heart wrenching page has been turned. For me, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett was one of those books.

From Booklist (via
Marina Singh gave up a career as a doctor after botching an emergency delivery as an intern, opting instead for the more orderly world of research for a pharmaceutical company. When office colleague Anders Eckman, sent to the Amazon to check on the work of a field team, is reported dead, Marina is asked by her company's CEO to complete Anders' task and to locate his body. What Marina finds in the sweltering, insect-infested jungles of the Amazon shakes her to her core. For the team is headed by esteemed scientist Annick Swenson, the woman who oversaw Marina's residency and who is now intent on keeping the team's progress on a miracle drug completely under wraps. Marina's jungle odyssey includes exotic encounters with cannibals and snakes, a knotty ethical dilemma about the basic tenets of scientific research, and joyous interactions with the exuberant people of the Lakashi tribe, who live on the compound. In fluid and remarkably atmospheric prose, Patchett captures not only the sights and sounds of the chaotic jungle environment but also the struggle and sacrifice of dedicated scientists.


Marina - her relationship with her father
Marina did not forget her father in his absence, nor did she learn to accept the situation over time. She longed for him. Her mother often said that Marina was smart in just the way her father was smart, and that explained why he was so pround that she excelled in the very things that interested her the most: earth sciences and math when she was a little girl, calculus, statistics, inorganic chemistry when she was older. Her skin was all cream and light in comparison to her father's and very dark when she held her wrist against her mother's. She had her father's round, black eyes and heavy lashes, his black hair and angular frame. Seeing her father gave her the ability to see herself, the comfort of physical recognition after a life spent among her mother's people, all those translucent cousins who looked at her like she was a llama who had wantered into their holiday dinner.

Marina - her relationship with Dr. Swenson
Marina waited for a moment, hoping for more than a one word affirmation. She was on an unnamed river in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night feeling very much the same way she always felt with Dr. Swenson, like Oliver Twist holding up his empty bowl.

Marina - her responsibility
Marina looked at the crowd and then at the Indians and the message on every face was exactly the same: no choice. And so she took the chief's hand which he then held high above his head, about the level of Marina's cheekbone, and together they did the slow skip forward while the men beat their drums and the tourists took their pictures and the children followed with their dances, their snake and their sloth. In this group Marina danced with the people who were not white while the white people watched them. It would never have been her preference to be part of a tourist attraction. One of the children handed her the sloth and she took it. She hung it around her neck and continued her dance, feeling the soft, warm hair against her skin. Had anyone given her a choice, she would have chosen instead to be back on the porch behind the storage shed beneath her mosquito netting reading Little Dorrit. Still, she knew it was somehow less humiliating, less disrespectful, to dance with the natives than it was to simply stand there watching them.

Then there were those exquisitely written passages that just made me sit back and sigh.

   Pickles [a Golden Retriever] leaned up against marina now and he batted her hand with his head until she reached down to rub the limp chamois of his ears.

   From the grand exterior she entered a lobby of palm plants and tired brown sofas that slumped together as if they had come as far as they could and then given up.

   Marina had been a very good student, but she only raised her hand when she was certain of the answer. She excelled not through bright bursts of inspiration but by the hard labor of a field horse pulling a plow.

   There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was that there was not getting used to it.

As hard as some of this story was to read, there was no denying the joy of spending reading time with Drs. Singh and Swenson along with Milton, Easter, and the Bovenders. Each small event, nuance, or description drew me in like the constant churring of one of the unnamed, unseen insects of the Amazon.

Visit the author's website here.


Nan said...

Gosh, it seems like I heard someone on NPR mentioning this book. I don't think I could take the locale! :<) Do you watch Off The Map? It is hard to take sometimes with the snakes, etc. A few years ago I read a John Grisham book that was partially set there - ... I just went and looked up the title ... The Testament. Have you read it? I remember liking it quite well.

Marcia said...

Nan~Patchett very cleverly and exquisitely creates the atmospheric setting of Brazil and the Amazon to the point where you know there are creepy crawlies and slitheries all around. But when the plot requires, the descriptions are blunt and in your face.

James watches Off the Map, and I will readily admit to skipping through the living room, averting eyes, when it's on.

I've jotted down John Grisham's The Testament. Thank you for the recommendation!

Nan said...

Oh, Off the Map is WONDERFUL! The boy from Friday Night Lights is in it in quite a different role. And the girl from Wonderfalls - did you ever see that quirky show? Good, good stories, great young actors. Tom and I, and Margaret love it.

Les said...

I'll come back and give this a more thorough read once I've read and reviewed the book. Glad it was a winner for you!