Friday, March 9, 2012

Ann Patchett's State of Wonder

This is why I'm still a librarian, in my heart and soul. Hours of troubleshooting computers, downloading customers' books to their "devices,"fighting with the cleaning crew for basic services, policing the study rooms, have become the norm. But one day per month I'm privileged to host a book discussion with an amazing group of men and women who are thoughtful, detailed, and opinionated readers. What a joy!

Today we had 29 people attend the discussion of Ann Patchett's remarkable novel State of Wonder. Most librarians, I feel certain, take their preparation for these discussions very seriously but we never want to turn them into a lecture. Rather, our duty is to throw out some open ended questions and let the attendees take over. And, oh, they do! No matter how deeply I think I've read a book, usually an initial reading for pleasure, then another reading for note taking, and a third to look for perfect quotations, my (and I do feel as though they're MY) people are ten steps ahead of me.

Patchett is always a great novelist for discussion. Bel Canto was a book group favorite and State of Wonder, even though I thought it had a few holes, had our group talking non-stop for an hour and a half. If there are any readers out there not familiar with the premise, let me give you a quick blow by blow.

Some reviewers say this novel hearkens back to Joseph Conrad's classic, Heart of Darkness, others see references to Paradise Lost, and others to the mythical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. A rogue doctor, Annick Swenson, described as "a force of nature," has been researching an unnatural phenomenon among the Lakashi tribe in the Brazilian rain forest. The women remain fertile and childbearing into their sixties and seventies, basically until they die of other causes.

Though the research is fully funded by a Minnesota firm, Vogel Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Swenson remains unreachable and unresponsive to their requests for progress reports. A Vogel scientist, Anders Eckman is sent to Brazil to find Dr. Swenson and wring some answers from her. Instead, he contracts a fever and dies. Now what? Anders' skeptical widow asks that his closest friend from work, Dr. Marina Singh, follow his footsteps in Brazil until she has a better explanation for Anders' disappearance. Dr. Singh complies. The results will be a life altering.

Patchett's ability to write a sense of place is phenomenal. The density, heaviness, and darkness of the jungle are palpable. While the male characters get short shrift, and I suspect that is intentional, the females are all astounding, complicated women, in very diverse ways. Controversial themes abound: loyalty/betrayal, ends/means, big pharma abusing third world countries for gains they may never reap the benefits of, medical ethics, women giving birth to children they won't live to raise, the list goes on and on.

I confessed to my group that I had a love/hate relationship with this novel. Then one of the participants asked us why we thought Ann Patchett wrote this book in the first place. What was her intent? Did she succeed? What kept us reading? Why? If you haven't read it yet, why not give it a whirl and let us know what you think. I await your response!

1 comment:

France said...

STATE OF WONDER by ANN PATCHETT starts rather slow and i find ,although this is a mute point, that her choice of names for characters is an indication as to how ambiguous alot of them end up being to the overall plot.By the middle of the book the story, now set firmly in the amazon jungle picks up,after a certainly slow start, making the reader stay on. However the ending leaves so many questions unanswered that it trully does put the reader in a 'state of wonder?