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State of Wonder

June 20, 2011

I read State of Wonder, Ann Patchett’s new novel, in the shady, green, bug-laden afternoon just before and after thunderstorms, and was almost completely captivated. Since I wasn’t a big fan of Bel Canto, this was something of a surprise to me. And yet there has always been something in her writing that I enjoy, especially in the memoir Truth and Beauty, so I requested this copy from HarperCollins to see what she’s done with this new novel. And it seems to me that Patchett has finally written what could be her masterpiece.

The novel begins with a letter that “had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man,” and sets in motion the events that will allow the main character, Marina Singh, to discover a few of the fantastic secrets of the Amazon jungle. At every step, however, Marina’s reactions to what is happening are detailed, realistic, and pretty much how I think I would react in her situation. The way the plot unfolds always highlights Marina’s common sense. When she delivers the letter to her colleague’s wife, she “had no illusions that she was the person Karen Eckman would want to break the news. It was true that she knew Karen, but only as well as a forty-two-year-old woman with no children knows a forty-three-year-old woman with three, as well as any single woman who works with the husband ever knows the wife who stays at home.”

The fantastical elements are introduced in plausible ways, like the nightmares Marina experiences whenever she takes an anti-malarial drug called Lariam. Upon finding out as an adult that it is the cause of her period and lifelong nightmares, she asks her mother why she never told her:
“Then why didn’t you tell me what it was?” Marina said.
“You don’t tell a five-year-old they’re going to have bad dreams. That’s like giving them an invitation to have more.”
“A five-year-old,” she said. “I’ll grant you that. But you could have explained it to me when I was ten, at least when I was fifteen.”
“I couldn’t tell you anything when you were fifteen. If I’d told you it was the pills that gave you nightmares you wouldn’t have taken them.”
As Marina travels deeper into the Amazon jungle, the reader is more and more like a fifteen-year-old American teenager, safely insulated from danger and so free to scoff at its existence.

The description of what it’s like to be deep in the jungle was one of the most compelling parts of the novel, for me:
“At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm. When it was fully dark only the misguided insects pelted themselves into the people on board while the rest chose to end their lives against the two bright, hot lights on either side of the boat. The night was filled with the relentless ping of their bodies hitting the glass….Marina was less comfortable in the jungle now that she couldn’t see it. She felt the plant life pressing against the edges of the water, straining towards them, every root and tendril reaching….
‘This is worse than a hailstorm,” Dr. Swenson said, spitting a small winged beetle onto the deck. “We can do without the lights.’ And then she turned off the lights.
In an instant, the veil of insects lifted and Marina saw nothing as she had never seen nothing before. It was as if God Himself had turned out the lights, every last one, and left them in the gaping darkness of His abandonment.”
Separated from its context, this section may seem a bit over-written, but one of the points of the jungle scenes, it seems to me, is that the context is all. You just can’t feel the same kind of scientific detachment while spitting out beetles that you can when reading about cures available only in unexplored parts of the rain forest.

There are marvelous secrets in this novel, secrets that can be revealed only in extremity. You have to take the journey to understand some of their significance, and then you’ll find yourself in a state like Marina’s:
“Marina had thought she understood this place. She had spotted the lancehead after all, she had cut apart the anaconda. She had performed surgeries she was neither licensed nor qualified to perform on a dirty floor and had eaten from the trees and swan in the river in a bloody dress only to find out that none of these things were on the test. There was in fact a circle of hell beneath this one that required an entirely different set of skills that she did not possess. She would have to go there anyway. She had been foolish enough to think that she had given up everything when in fact she could see now that she hadn’t even started.”

Marina keeps learning from her teacher, Dr. Swenson, whose last lesson is uncomfortably close to the first thing Marina had observed about Karen, the wife she did not know very well:
“I didn’t tell you because you wouldn’t have liked the story. But that matters less now, doesn’t it? No one tells the truth to people they don’t actually know, and if they do it is a horrible trait. Everyone wants something smaller, something neater than the truth.”

In the end, Marina stops waiting for anyone to tell her the truth. She has become an explorer, and the reader feels similarly buoyed and empowered, not to mention surprised, that a novel could actually live up to this ambitious title—State of Wonder. It is wonderful.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2011 10:35 am

    I’ve only read Patchett’s Run and thought it was pretty good. If you think this might be her masterpiece, I must add it to my to-read list!

    • June 21, 2011 8:19 am

      I think it might, because she’s found a way to connect her technical skill at writing with the other elements of telling a story, and succeeded in layering in various choices for what it might mean to these characters, and then to readers.

  2. June 20, 2011 10:39 am

    I didn’t dislike Bel Canto, but it wasn’t nearly as good as I wanted it to be. And I thought the plot was overly contrived. I’ve been eyeing this one and thinking it looked more up my alley. I’m glad to know I can add it to my list.

    • June 21, 2011 8:20 am

      It did seem like Bel Canto was trying too hard. There are events that could be described as contrived in this novel, but I didn’t react that way. The spell of the jungle made them seem inevitable.

  3. June 20, 2011 11:21 am

    I agree with you about Bel Canto, and I agree with you about Truth and Beauty…so I’m going to trust your judgment on this one, too. It does sound good. I heard Ann Patchett on NPR and I liked the interview – that always helps to get you interested in a book.

  4. June 20, 2011 11:27 am

    I think this is the drug (or something similar) that I heard about on a podcast a while back. A chap took it and ended up completely losing three years of his memory.

    • June 21, 2011 8:25 am

      Memory loss can be another side effect; I looked it up. One article even reported that the Fort Bragg shootings could have been a result of troops taking the drug.

  5. freshhell permalink
    June 20, 2011 11:40 am

    Interesting. I’ll have to read this. I particularly like: “No one tells the truth to people they don’t actually know, and if they do it is a horrible trait. Everyone wants something smaller, something neater than the truth.” Because that seems to be true of divorcing couples and their friends who are “shocked” by the news. They didn’t know things were that bad. Because who wants to listen to someone talk about how miserable they are and feeling like they can’t extricate themselves? All they want is a kind ear, not a problem solver or for their friends to cringe and look away. Eventually, they’ll change things. So, they don’t tell anyone their secrets, their problems. People do want something neater than the truth.

    • June 21, 2011 8:27 am

      Also, it is a horrible trait when someone you don’t know tells you the truth. You’re not equipped to handle it, especially because you’re still trying to decide if it could actually be the truth.

  6. June 20, 2011 1:32 pm

    Wow, this is a great review and I totally want to read this book now! I also really enjoyed Truth & Beauty. I have several of Patchett’s novels, but have yet to read any of them. (I’ve been thinking I might try reading Bel Canto for Orange July…)

    • June 21, 2011 8:28 am

      If you plan to read this one and Bel Canto, I’d certainly recommend Bel Canto first.

  7. June 20, 2011 9:07 pm

    I’ve been hearing great things about this book. I’m not the biggest Patchett fan but it seems like she hit a home run with this book … her masterpiece as you say. I’ll have to check it out.

    • June 21, 2011 8:29 am

      I was not a big Patchett fan either. I hope I’m not building this up too much, because part of the pleasure was surprise.

  8. June 20, 2011 9:53 pm

    A masterpiece? That’s high praise. I’ll have to look for this one.

    • June 21, 2011 8:30 am

      Well, HER masterpiece, anyway. My reaction to it is that this is a novelist who is finally in full control of her powers.

  9. May 12, 2016 11:05 am

    I must not have read THIS review! I will read this, likely sooner than later. Thank you.

  10. June 28, 2016 2:40 pm

    Yes, this is a fabulous review. I love your reviews (when I have already read the book) even though you don’t actually spoil, you immerse. (not a complaint – my own struggles to know NOTHING when I read a book!) So, now that I’ve read the book, I absolutely love your thoughts here and the quotes you give and everything.
    –> “had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man,” Sounds so poetic. and I agree, it just feels like Patchett is in control in her writing. I am a fan. I can’t wait to read more of her and I think I want to start in order. (I’ve already read Bel Canto – years and lifetimes ago.)

    • June 28, 2016 2:55 pm

      What a good word, “immerse.” I think that’s often how I feel until I finish writing about a book.

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