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.