State of Wonder was my bookclub choice for September and although I’d read it before I was looking forward to rereading it. I’d forgotten most of the details, or so I thought. Until I came to the scene where Marina Singh makes a critical obstetric error, then it all came flooding back. This event results in Marina abandoning her medical career and, in many ways, she retreats from the world. When the novel opens she is working as a research scientist for a large pharmacological company and lives alone. Her relationship with her boss, Mr Fox, is going nowhere. With the coldness of Minnesota snow he sends her to the Amazon jungle to find out what has happened to her colleague Anders Eckman. Mr Fox does provide Marina with anti-malarial drugs and a phone, neither of which prove to be much help to her, but they do assuage his guilt.
In the Amazon Marina must confront Dr Swenson, the very specialist whose instructions she ignored all those years ago.
State of Wonder is carefully plotted, the characters are believable, their conflicts understandable and relatable, and it has a satisfying enough resolution.
Patchett tackles the issues of ethics in research, the role of women in medicine, the impact of the western world on the Amazon. It is a book which asks some difficult questions:
- What if women could maintain fertility throughout their lifespan?
- And what of women in medicine, what is it like for them?
- Is it possible to live amongst indigenous peoples and do no harm?
Dr Swenson lightened for a moment. “I’ll tell you what the locals do have a real genius for, and that’s poison. There are so many plants and insects and various reptiles capable of killing a person out here that it seems any idiot could scrape together a compound that would drop an elephant. As for the rest of it, people survive regardless of the care they get. The human animal is too resilient for it to be otherwise. It is not for me to meddle.” p181
And of course, meddle Dr Swenson did. Rather spectacularly. All for the sake of her research. All because she knew best, or so she thought.
Since I first read State of Wonder I’ve spent some time in the Amazon jungle. Not a lot. But enough to alert me to the implausibility of some of the events in this book.
I was able to picture only too keenly the discomforts of jungle life, its challenges, and its dangers. And here’s when the book went wrong for me this time around. I thought Patchett glossed over the challenges visitors face in such an inhospitable environment. Leaving the campsite without a guide, something Marina does regularly is an extremely foolish and dangerous thing to do.
Ultimately State of Wonder didn’t reward rereading. Not for me anyway. Too much got in the way of the suspension of disbelief necessary for a satisfying reading experience. And I found the language flat and somehow lacking the richness that may have brought that extra layer of pleasure to a re-reading.
Nevertheless, it is a thought provoking novel.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011) Bloomsbury
Shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2012
Categories: On Books