Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: State of Wonder

Summary: Ann Patchett has dazzled readers with her award-winning books, including The Magician's Assistant and the New York Times bestselling Bel Canto. Now she raises the bar with State of Wonder, a provocative and ambitious novel set deep in the Amazon jungle. 

Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past. 

Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations. 

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, and a neighboring tribe of cannibals, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side. -- Harper

After seeing such amazing reviews for STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett, there was little doubt in my mind that I would be reading it. I've read a few of Ms. Patchett's novels and I've always been blown away by her writing; and it certainly seems like her latest novel lives up to expectations. So I decided to curl up on very hot afternoon and escape to the Amazon!

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it!), STATE OF WONDER was not an afternoon read for me. Despite being familiar with Ms. Patchett's writing, it was a bit heavier (and longer) than I was expecting and it took me quite a few days to finish it. I found that I jumped right in and read the first third (or so) pretty quickly; and the last third, I absolutely devoured. But the middle of the story just seemed to drag a little bit for me. I'm not entirely sure that it wasn't my issue with the book, but I have talked to a few other bloggers who had a similar reaction.

Despite my slight criticism of this novel (and honestly, who am I to criticize anything that Ms. Patchett writes?), I thought STATE OF WONDER was a pretty amazing novel. It definitely had a little something for everyone because it included action, adventure, romance and mystery. And added to all of that was Ms. Patchett's gorgeous prose and incredible character development. For the most part, I was riveted to the story; and I was even on the edge of my seat for a few scenes. Of course, all of the surprises and story twists didn't hurt either.

While STATE OF WONDER was a very entertaining read, I actually found that I appreciated how much this novel made me think. (Maybe it's just me, but right now, I'm loving every book that causes me to think outside of the story.) I enjoyed how this book explored the complexity of relationships and especially love. In addition, I was wowed by how interesting the cast of characters was in this story -- namely Dr. Swenson and Marina's characters. However, I think the ethical and moral questions in this story are what really gave me the most food for thought. As I read this novel, I couldn't help put consider the ethics of scientists and drug companies as well as the sacrifices they make in the name of science. And this idea of sacrifices (both good and bad) as well as the characters' behavior in the jungle further highlighted some basic components of human nature.

You can probably assume by now that I'd think that STATE OF WONDER would make an amazing book club discussion, and you'd be right. There is a reading guide available with sixteen very thought-provoking questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include the effects of the past on the present, relationships, friendships, sacrifice, ethics, civilization, culture, and science. In addition, there are many symbols woven into this story which are ripe for discussion. As much as I did enjoy reading STATE OF WONDER, I do believe that my reading experience would be enhanced with a discussion amongst friends. I have a feeling that I'd end up appreciating this novel even more over a glass of wine and some good analysis!

I have to agree with most every review that I've read for STATE OF WONDER that it's a gripping and fascinating story. I highly recommend this novel!

Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

State of Wonder was my first experience with Patchett's writing and I thought her prose was wonderful. I thought the middle dragged too and there was something at the end that bothered me. Wonderful review!

Beth F said...

I haven't read this one yet -- but I love books that make me think, not just about the story but well beyond the covers of the book into real life.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I agree with the "draggy" comment more than the "gripping" comment! LOL

Laura at Library of Clean Reads said...

I just finished reading this one a few days ago and I LOVED it. The ending left me breathless though. I would have preferred it not being so open-ended, but other reviewers didn't mind this, so it's just me!

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

I can't wait to read this one! XOXO

Kailana said...

I am curious about this... I have wanted to read a couple of her books for a while now, but never actually done so.

Walking with Mom said...

Did you know that Ann Patchett is opening her own bookstore in Nashville, TN? I haven't read STATE OF WONDER yet, but it is on my TBR pile. Thanks for this great review. I love your reviews, they are so thoughtful and insightful.