Anita Laydon's Reviews > State of Wonder

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
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Dec 24, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: adult

As soon as December hits, people start to ask me, “What was the best book you read this year?” I usually have a title in mind by Halloween, but not this year. My family’s Thanksgiving leftovers were mostly gone and I still hadn’t found a standout book. Then Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” landed on my library holds shelf.

This novel has it all: compelling characters, a richly layered plot, an exciting setting, a complicated romance and a thought-provoking theme. I laughed and cried while reading “State of Wonder,” and when the end came—in the wee hours of a Saturday morning—I would’ve given Patchett a standing ovation, if only my claps wouldn’t wake my little ones.

The story begins in a Minnesota pharmaceutical lab in which two scientists, Marina Singh and Anders Eckman, had worked side by side for seven years. Anders is away in Brazil, checking progress on a valuable new drug. Marina is in the lab alone, when her boss (and lover) Mr. Fox walks in. He holds a letter from a Dr. Swenson. She was Marina’s mentor in medical school and is now in charge of the drug Anders went to evaluate. Dr. Swenson’s letter states that Anders died in Brazil of a jungle fever.

Anders’ wife and Mr. Fox implore Marina to travel to the jungle. They both want more information; Anders’ wife wants to know more about her husband’s death and burial, and Mr. Fox wants a progress report about the new drug.

With much trepidation, Marina makes the journey and eventually locates Dr. Swenson. Now in her seventies, the doctor is as formidable as Marina remembers. She manipulates her research team and the natives, provides information only in bits and pieces, and convinces Marina to participate in questionable activities.

While Marina battles ghosts from her past, she must also answer lingering questions about her friend’s death and make peace with the new drug’s ethical consequences. I cheered Marina on through these challenges, as well as her fights with nature; she is bedridden with illness in one scene, comes face-to-face with a boa constrictor in another and meets poison-arrow-tossing cannibals in a third.

“State of Wonder” is my favorite read of 2011. I look forward to reading more of Patchett’s work—she’s written six other novels—in the new year.

Miller welcomes book suggestions. Read her blog at or e-mail

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