State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

It comforts me when writers are bad at titles. Some writers are disturbingly good at titles, like Tennessee Williams. Some, like Ann Patchett, are not. I am not good at titles myself, although I keep meaning to embark on a project whereby I think of a title for the day before I go to bed at night. This is a more labor-intensive project than it seems, so I’m putting it off until I finish making my little cousin’s Christmas stocking. Maybe it can be one of my New Year’s Resolutions next year.

State of Wonder is about a scientist, Annick Swenson, who with the backing of pharmaceutical giant Vogel is working on a drug that will enable women in their seventies to bear children. Over the course of her research she has disappeared into the jungles of South America and stopped almost all communication with Vogel. Marina Singh is a Vogel employee whose friend and coworker, Anders Eckman, went to the jungle to find Dr. Swenson and died while there; now it is her turn to find the recalcitrant scientist and report back to Vogel on the progress of the drug.

I read Patchett’s memoir about Lucy Greely, Truth and Beauty, and liked it okayish, but I have regularly tried and failed to enjoy her fiction. I started reading Bel Canto and gave it up, ditto The Magician’s Assistant (twice). When my book club decided to read this, I was — to say the least — reluctant. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed the book very much. The writing was vivid but clear, and the plot, though a little slow-moving, offered high enough stakes to keep me engaged. Annick Swensen was a fantastic character, and even Anders, who is introduced to us by his death, is made vivid by the other characters’ recollections of him. I am fond of the device whereby non-present characters seem as real as present ones, just from what everyone else has to say about them. See Rebecca for the best anyone has ever accomplished this.

I wasn’t crazy about the portrayal of the indigenous tribe Dr. Swenson was studying. Apart from one or two characters, they are not differentiated from each other much at all. While this can be attributed to Marina’s not speaking the language, it still bothered me a little that they remained for the whole of the book so relentlessly other to Marina. The characters talk a lot about the ethics of interference with indigenous peoples, but very few indigenous characters have a voice, and even those that do get very little screen time.

Back on the plus side of things, I liked it that the characters address issues of morality as they arise — the ethics of interfering with the lifestyles of indigenous people; the different values of scientists and pharmaceutical companies; the responsibility of a doctor to fix the problem in front of her — but do not come up with a tidy moral. You know what the characters think about these issues, but you can’t necessarily extrapolate what Ann Patchett thinks, or what she thinks you should think. I like to have ethical issues raised, explored, and resolved by the characters’ actions in ways that don’t necessarily resolve all the problems in the characters’ thoughts.

Having liked this better than expected, I still have no desire to dash out and read Ann Patchett’s other books. But I am willing to be persuaded otherwise. Ann Patchett fans, where do I go from here? Tell me the best Ann Patchett book to blow my mind.

  • I don’t think Ann Patchett is your dream writer. I liked Truth and Beauty because it had an unassuming feel to it; but her fiction always conveys an image to me of the writer sitting at her computer in the wee hours, saying determinedly to herself, “Must…write…serious…fiction…” To tell you the truth, I actually like her mother’s fiction better – it’s light as air, but the characters are so lovable, and the writing is so unpretentious. Patchett does achieve some lovely imagery, though.

    • She’s not my dream writer, but this book grabbed me pretty quickly, in a way that none of the earlier books of hers I tried did. And it didn’t feel like she was trying super hard to be a serious writer, except possibly in her subject matter (that bit didn’t work). The writing was good and the plot was interesting and maybe you would like this one.

  • I didn’t like this one very much, especially through the middle, which I thought dragged. But I love the idea of thinking up a name for each day. …although how many times can you use “Sucked”? Maybe for a multivolume work…

    • Hahahhahahaha. Well, yeah, but my idea about naming the days was to name them after the most vivid thing that happened that day. It would nearly always be something, wouldn’t it?

  • I just picked this one up last night, and I am eager to make today a reading day and get back to it. There is something about this book that is really compelling, and I can’t tell if it is the writing style or the plot, but I am sailing along and enjoying it very much. I am glad to see that you did too, and can’t wait to see what happens in the end. Perhaps I will even be able to finish it this weekend! Great review today, Jenny!

    • Thanks! I hope you like the end — my book club was split on how they felt about the ending, and I was rather split on it myself, truth be told.

  • Amy

    I haven’t read any of her books but have this one on my list. I’m interested to see what others recommend though. I feel like she’s an author I should read but since I put it off so long I don’t know where to start with her books now.

    • From what people have said, and from my own experience, I’d start with this. I had a really hard time getting into her earlier books, and none of that with State of Wonder. I’m hoping now I have enough investment in Ann Patchett as a fiction writer that I’ll be able to be bothered continuing with her books if they don’t thrill me right from the word go.

  • I think you brought up some really good points about this book. I haven’t read anything by the author yet because I haven’t managed to get pass the first few pages of her books. 🙁

    • Same, until this. Have you tried this one yet? I really had a completely different reaction to it than I’ve had to her books in the past.

  • Like you, I haven’t had much luck at all with Patchett’s fiction, but I will most definitely feel better about giving this one a try in light of your review.

    • Do! I’d be interested to see what you think of it.

  • I’m a two-time failure with Bel Canto, but I did like Run. I don’t know if that’s a worthy recommendation though, since it’s the only book of hers that I’ve managed to read in its entirety.

    • I haven’t tried Run, only Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant (and now this). I’d be delighted to find another of her books to love. I always want to love her and feel sad when I fail.

  • I’m just now reading Bel Canto but ugh to Mumsy’s description! I actually am enjoying it though even though I do think it’s a tiny bit slow the opening pages won me over.

    I want to read this one eventually as well!

    • Ugh to Mumsy’s description like you haven’t had that same response, or ugh to Mumsy’s description like that’s exactly what it’s like reading Ann Patchett but you are persistent and pushed through it? :p

  • I do want to read this one because I personally loved Bel Canto. But I haven’t read any of her other books so who knows, could have been a one-time thing. LOL

    • Maybe I’ll give Bel Canto another try!

  • I confess I haven’t read any Ann Patchett at all, although I do want to try her out. I had no idea she had a mother who wrote too…. how interesting. But anyway, I really must give her a try, Ann, that is.

    • Try this. I trust Jeanne’s opinion and Jeanne says this is her best book so far. I want to like Bel Canto and the others, and will probably give them another try at some point, but as this is the only Patchett book I’ve managed to read all the way through, I recommend this one!

  • This is the only thing Patchett has written that I’ve really liked, so my advice would be to skip the earlier novels. I think she’s finally learned how to plot, so with this newest novel I finally didn’t get the feeling Mumsy describes, of being aware of the writer sitting there trying to be all writerly.

    • Oh and plot is so important to me. That’s a very compelling argument. Perhaps I should wait until her next book and love her in the future? But maybe she’s one of those people like Tom Stoppard who has flashes of plot brilliance (like Arcadia) and then recedes into depending on her writing (which Tom Stoppard can do because he’s Tom Stoppard but most people can’t and shouldn’t).

  • I really loved Bel Canto, but I know it’s not for everyone.

  • I’ve heard good things about this book but I just haven’t felt moved to read it myself. The premises sounds interesting but the characters don’t sound like they would appeal to me, and that’s important for me in order to really enjoy a book.

    • Mmmmm, you might be surprised about the characters. I didn’t care about Marina but the people around her were interesting enough to keep me engaged. Characters are important to me too, and I have very little patience with books whose characters are unsympathetic.

  • I am terrible with titles. When I was in university trying to decide what to call my papers was always the hardest part!

  • Jenny

    I thought the writing in Bel Canto was very pretty, but I was so angry with the assumptions behind it. Read my review of it before you try it again, and see if you don’t smell what I’m cooking.

    I recently read a wonderfully plotty science-fiction book. I’m about to review it and call you out because I know you like plot in your plot. I think it’s right up your alley, even if you don’t usually read sf.

  • I liked Bel Canto but it was years ago. Perhaps I’ve avoided State of Wonder precisely because the title is ineffectual.

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  • Nadia Santos

    This is a great novel–very character driven, but with a beautiful and significant plot as well. I can’t recommend it enough. Congratulations to Ann Patchett, you’ve written a beautiful book.

    Nadia
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