Sunday, May 27, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A woman must enter the jungle to find two people but ends up finding much more.

Much like Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett combines exceptionally evocative literary description and imagery with a deep technical understanding of plot. That’s why her books are so hard to put down. The first image in State of Wonder is a blue airmail letter, a letter that sends our main character, Dr. Marina Singh, immediately packing for the jungle.  Not a scene in the book is wasted. The minor characters are also cogs in the plot, moving the story along.  

This book was wonderful, deeply satisfying, although only for the first four fifths. Dr. Marina, a mixed race Minnesota medical researcher, is apparently the only person who can be sent into the jungle to discover what happened to her lab mate, Anders, when he failed to return from his jungle assignment. Their employer, a pharmaceutical company, is interested in the status of their company’s billion dollar investment in drug research being completed at a hidden Amazonian lab. (Question: couldn’t the head office find the lab with a close perusal of Google maps?). The lab is overseen by the elderly terrifying Dr. Swenson, who was involved in a prior tragedy in Marina’s medical career. The establishment of Marina’s inner and outer conflict is set up brilliantly.

There’s so much to think about in this wonderful book – motherhood and industrialization and innocence and evil and nature. The plot serves as a frame to deliver at last Marina into a beautiful bizarre grove of otherworldly trees – trees that give life (and visions) to the tribe. The story is really about Marina’s discovery of herself and what she wants.

In the last part of the book, however, the cold mechanics of the plot take over, and the quick twists at the end are possibly unsupported. The final twist is unbelievable, actually, and is not emotionally true for the character of Dr. Marina. I think more open endedness and a touch of tragedy would have served the story better. The plot snaps into place so certainly it snuffs out the life of the story. We were headed for someplace great.

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