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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
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Aug 15, 2011

it was amazing

In her latest, Patchett proffers a few mythical principles— people we would never be—the maniacal Indi Jones-ish botanist-gone-rogue, ghoulishly with child in the Amazon despite her old age; the deaf boy shipped, like Moses, downriver for his own sake by a tribe of fabled cannibals. But Patchett’s heroes, Marina and Anders, are workaday, data-plotting Minnesotans who never asked for action. They are creatures of habit—of precisely those habits, those impalpable addictions kept by middle-class middle-Americans, by ordinary people full stop. He has his wife, the boys, the house; she her persistent professional regrets and recurring nightmares.

Anders is sent to Brazil to track the aforementioned botanist’s progress on an anxiously-awaited fertility drug that their employer, a blandly mal-intentioned pharmaceutical giant, has been funneling fortunes South to fund for decades. Anders dies, flushed and fetid, of something without a proper name, so Marina is deputized by her boss-and-lover to go do what Anders couldn’t, as well by Anders’ grief-drunk wife to prove that everybody was lying and that the father of her children isn’t dead after all.

So we’re in the jungle. It’s the not-in-Kansas, inverted deus ex machina trick of which Patchett is fond, by her own admission. But Patchett’s truly dazzling trick is making those habits—fears, languages, ethics, costumes, resentments, tastes, loves and loyalties—disappear, and reappear, or appear out of thin air, or go nowhere at all just when you were sure of an impending poof! Marina slaughters an Anaconda, oars headlong into a flock of poison darts, but is still afraid to perform a C-Section, having botched one years before. When Marina’s clothing is stolen, she dons an indigenous shift dress, which she wears to rags. She looks, then, like a member of the tribe, but it is a uniform as uniform as her lab coat had been. She exchanges her subliminally cherished nightmares for a new dependence on the bark of the tree from which the fertility drug is derived. Anders’ admiration for his wife, as we learn through his unsent letters to her, is not contingent on Eden Prairie, Minnesota or even consciousness. Karen comes to him in his fevered dreams. Anders writes, in a passage I love (and an example of an utterly cool compliment), “YOU arrive at 4:00 and take me out of this bed and we walk through the jungle, and Karen, you know EVERYTHING about the jungle,” but betrays her there in a way he never could up North.

Patchett breaks readers, too, of their habits. (QUIT READING HERE IF YOU DON'T WANT IT SPOILED!) Suddenly, Anders isn’t dead, for example. I’d gotten used to eschewing false hope when reading serious books! That archetypically delusional widow, pitied but never heeded, had the right idea! And those mythical principles I mentioned, despite their marvelous aspects, present affectingly mundane symptoms. The lady I called a maniac rogue? She becomes, eventually, an aging devotee of science, eminent in her field, mourning her missed chance at motherhood. The deaf-mute, sprite-like in his smarts and inscrutable back-story, is broken, like any mortal child, by abandonment. The miracle drug is a miracle, but is also better suited, morally, to curing a less folkloric, less lucrative disease—Malaria.

I’ll remember this book for its effluvia, its bonny blue mushrooms, its bark, its beautiful twist-beginning and insidious normalcy, for the dream of a heartlander like me besting a mammoth snake.

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Lisa Nocita Brilliant.

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