(What do you think of the book review category name? I had something pithier on the old blog, but don’t want to use it again. Hmm. This could change.)
About 100 pages into State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, I turned to my husband and told him, with a sigh, that I was finding the book boring. “Nothing at all like Bel Canto,” I complained, gesturing helplessly at the book. But behold, read for about 30 pages more and then you’re in the thick of State of Wonder. The first 130 pages took me six days to read. The last 223, only two.
A word about the first 130 pages. Patchett eases into Marina Singh’s world a bit too carefully. News has come, from the Amazon via her former instructor Dr. Annick Swenson, that Singh’s colleague and friend Dr. Anders Eckman has died. The company they three work for, Vogel, had sent Eckman to find Swenson and discover her progress on a fertility drug that would help women get pregnant into their 60s and 70s by rejuvenating their ova. Alas, Swenson isn’t forthcoming on the state of her research, and Eckman pays the price. Asked by her boss (and lover) Mr. Fox to continue Eckman’s quest (and implored by Eckman’s wife to find out precisely what’s happened to her husband), Dr. Singh is launched down into the Amazon.
Along the way toward Singh and Swenson meeting after having parted ways in an unfortunate manner years before, we’re treated to Marina’s preparations to leave, her hopeful expectations of marriage to Mr. Fox, and a prolonged stay in Manaus, Brazil, while Swenson’s city safeguards, the Bovendors, evaluate Marina and her fitness to see Dr. Swenson. We see her get sick, react badly to Lariam, have an unpleasant evening with the Bovendors picking through Dr. Swenson’s mail, and finally they all decide to go to the opera. Which is where Dr. Swenson thankfully makes her first appearance.
Because Dr. Swenson really is the heart of this book. We’re not seeing things through her eyes, but damn if she isn’t the most influential and powerful character in the novel. She has an cool reserve that cuts through all the bullshit (were I like this), gets work done, and commands a respect that’s broadcasted without arrogance. With her is Easter, a young deaf boy who has been with Swenson for eight years. Easter has a natural charm, too, and everyone who encounters him falls in love with him. Smart, resourceful and indispensable, Marina makes the same mistake that Eckman did in believing that taking Easter back to the States is the best thing to do for the child (a tendency that seems to strike many Americans—even my husband had this reaction to a kid he met in an African country way back in the day).
But Swenson helps bring out the best in Easter, just as she does in Marina. Having abandoned her path to practicing medicine after a crucial error in judgment, Swenson eases Marina back into practicing medicine—without license and more than a decade after her last surgery, but with the skill she had and then felt she had to abandon. Swenson shares her findings and ultimate purpose of her research, and along the way instills a confidence in Marina that’s sorely lacking at the beginning of the book.
The novel has larger things to say about many subjects: bioethics, the role of pharmaceutical companies, developing money-generating drugs versus eradicating disease, the influence of Western medicine on an indigenous culture, and the appropriation and assumptions and abuses that the West makes of those cultures. In the end, the most heartbreaking moment is one of appropriation and assumption and abuse, and it’s the kind of ending that will stay with you for a long time to come.
Despite my misgivings, a solid four-star book and a recommend. Just don’t be impatient—a trait that I share with Marina Singh. At least I could tell Swenson that I persevered nonetheless.