(This is part two of a two-part entry. Click here for Part I.)
From the best of books to the worst of books. We move from “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” to “State of Wonder.” For the life of me, I can’t understand why so many reviewers liked this book. According to most reviewers, it’s a cover of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and the book is sort of about Marina, an Indian-American doctor who is sent to the Amazon to find out about some medical research and discover how her colleague died there. As I alluded to in Part I, there were too many themes and characters. Whatever amazing move Ann Patchett attempted with this book, she didn’t pull it off. At all.
I think “State of Wonder” is the story of Marina, a flat and uninteresting Indian-American researcher from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. It also could be the story of her former mentor, Annick Swenson, a doctor who lives in the Amazon trying to find a drug that will make women fertile past an age when they should be. Or maybe it is about western domination of third-world cultures, or maybe medical ethics, or love, or…oh hell, I have no idea what it was about.
At first, the book was interesting—it seemed like we were getting a Michael Crichton style science mystery. But that never really developed—it was quickly and unexcitingly explained. And as I said earlier, neither did Marina. I think I have said here before that my sister once advised me the main character of a novel should change from the beginning of the novel to the end. Marina didn’t really change, and if she did, we never find out how. She obviously has moving experiences in the Amazon, what with delivering the baby in a treehouse and cutting the snake off the kid, and chewing on the bark of a mystical tree, but we aren’t privy to what this does to her. We never find out how she comes to terms with her father abandoning her. And we don’t get any insight into how her love affair with the CEO plays out when she returns from her romp in the magical forest.
The supporting cast was straight out of Law & Order. By that I mean they were entirely forgettable. If you are a devotee of L&O (as us addicts call it), you know that there have been several occasions where actors have appeared in multiple episodes as different characters. One season she’s the murder victim and the next season she’s the judge. That’s only possible because the characters blend into the background and leave no meaningful trace of their story behind. I felt that way about the doctors in the jungle, the Bovenders, Mr. Fox, and all of the natives from the Amazon.
Our book group had a really fun discussion about this book though. Many in the group liked it and found all sorts of symbolism and hidden meanings and it made for an interesting conversation last night. I’m left with just one thought—if I had traveled more extensively, I think this book would have meant more to me. (Inside joke, sorry.)
My wife’s comments about this book and the themes of fertility and wanting children made me think for a long while about what Patchett was preaching with this novel. I won’t try to cover her comments here (she can get her own blog) but suffice it to say, her personal feelings about this book were even stronger than mine.
It feels liberating to dislike a book. Regular readers of this blog know I end up liking most of what I read, but once in a while, it’s nice to read something and have strong objections. There are few critical reviews of this book online, so I’m in the minority with my feelings about “State of Wonder.” In some cases, I will say, “Don’t read this book.” Not here. Many of you will like this book and think I’m deficient in my capabilities as a reviewer. So read it yourself and tell me what you think in the comments.
Thanks for reading.