Saturday, October 29, 2011


State of Wonder, Ann Patchett, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2011, 353 pp

In her latest novel, Ann Patchett returns to South America, but the setting and subject matter differ dramatically from that of Bel Canto. It was Bel Canto that made me her fan though for some reason since then I have only read The Patron Saint of Liars (her first novel and my favorite) and Run, which I liked very much but which did not have the success of Bel Canto. Over the past nineteen years she has only published six novels but like some of my other best-loved authors, the pace of a novel about every three years seems to keep her quality high.

State of Wonder begins slowly in the midst of a Minnesota winter. The opening is dramatic with the news that Marina Singh's colleague Anders Eckman has succumbed to fever in the Amazonian jungle.

Marina is a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company, a single woman in her thirties having an affair with the company's CEO, a rather reserved and lonely person. The news of Eckman's death hits hard but when her lover/boss virtually orders her to travel to Brazil and investigate the situation, her life changes in multiple ways.

However, the novel is nearly half over by the time she actually reaches the jungle and confronts the potential villain of the story, her former medical professor and the key researcher for the company, Dr Annick Swenson. The long set up is a risky move since all the action in the novel takes place at the jungle research camp. We have learned that Dr Swenson has been developing a fertility drug and that the two women have collided in the past, but it is not until we meet Swenson that her draconian personality becomes real.

I did not mind the leisurely opening pace because I happen to love Patchett's writing. As a reader, I feel as safe in her hands as I do riding in the backseat of a car with a good driver. This author has similar sentiments to mine when it comes to women, families, love and children. Every character in her books has redeeming qualities and difficult quirks. No one ever fully lives up to what others expect of them and to me that is quite like real life.

The fertility issue is of course a hot one these days and the novel is full of astute observations on that subject. Somehow fertility is and yet is not the main theme. Either instead of or in addition to the questions of childbearing, is the theme of life purposes and how both men and women, civilized and primitive, carry out these purposes amidst the pressures of family and society.

Ann Patchett has almost become an old fashioned author by now, especially because she is so invested in matters of family and love. I would imagine she is most admired by middle-aged women. I wonder if young women find her relevant.

After a startling denouement in State of Wonder, she leaves quite a few plot threads unresolved. All the main characters experience life changing moments in the Amazon basin, leaving the reader to imagine what will happen to them after the novel ends. I like that!

(State of Wonder is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an e-book.)

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