Will Byrnes's Reviews > State of Wonder

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
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really liked it

** spoiler alert ** Mistah Kurtz, he dead, well, Mr. Eckman anyway. At Minnesota-based Vogel pharmaceuticals, weeks-old news of bio-researcher Anders Eckman’s Amazonian demise leads the company to send another scientist to find out what happened, and to complete Eckman’s charge. He had been sent to determine the status of research, on a long-overdue revolutionary fertility drug, being conducted by the reclusive, and somewhat scary Doctor Annick Swenson. (think Kurtz) Pharmacological researcher Marina Singh (think Marlow) is sent to the remote Brazilian research station to investigate. Along the way she has to overcome several obstacles, including a pair of gatekeepers in a Brazilian city, conflict about leaving her significant other, and a fear of facing her former teacher. In addition there are the physical challenges of travelling up-river into this remote and forbidding place, some incoming poison arrows, a plague of insects, a very large snake, and some persistent nightmares.

Ann Patchett – at her bookstore - image from her site

In a road-trip-journey-of-self-discovery story, it is first imperative that one identify with the searcher. While Marina is a somewhat sympathetic character, it is tough to feel wholly supportive of her, let alone empathetic. She has committed some errors in her life, like the rest of us, but she keeps making such dumb mistakes that she makes one think she might have been better off staying home. (Following is borderline spoiler material, so you might want to close your eyes for a line or two.) For instance, she leaves her satellite phone in stowed luggage rather than with her carry-on materials. Any guesses what happens? Yep. Not only does she lose her sat-phone (when the airline mislays her luggage) on arrival in Brazil, she then proceeds to lose all her new belongings once again when she arrives at her up-river destination. There is a much bigger error in judgment that happens near the end but I will spare you that one. Suffice it to say that it makes one shake one’s head and mutter “Schmuck!” I understand that the sequential loss of property is a mechanism for stripping the character down to her core, but if our identification with the searcher is undermined, what is left?

A fair bit actually. What I most enjoyed were the echoes of Joseph Conrad and other classical references to be found here. Conrad’s book had a lot to do with the relationship between the western and third worlds. Marina is herself the embodiment of such diversity, being the product of an Indian (as in South Asian, not Native American) father and a Caucasian American mother. The Congo that Conrad wrote of was a source of natural resources for European colonialists. In this contemporary version, it is the potential for pharmacological resources to be found in Amazonia that the West is looking to exploit. I cannot cite a page number but I am pretty sure there was purple smoke wafting about, which summoned for me an element of Coppola’s cinematic interpretation of Conrad. And Minnesota offers an image of coldness to contrast with the heat of the Brazilian jungle.

In the quest for self-discovery, a Campbell-ian hero ventures from his/her quotidian home, in this case Eden Prairie, where Vogel Pharmaceuticals is ironically located, to a place of supernatural power, slays a dragon, literally or figuratively, thus gaining power, and boogies on home, enlarged. Patchett has some fun with this, naming the company’s Brazilian guide Milton, for example. A young native character is Easter, which must have something to do with sacrifice and return, ya think?
[Marina] understood that in life a person was only allowed one trip down to hell
That she attends an opera of Orpheus and Eurydice reinforces this. What might be thought of as a tree of knowledge shows up as well. Considering the stripping of her externalities that came before, it seems pretty clear that someone is being reborn.
He walked her into the water up to their knees and then up to their waists. It was like a bath, silky and warm. The current was so slight it barely disturbed her clothes. She wanted to lie down in it. Milton dipped his own handkerchief into the water and spread it wet over the top of her head. “It’s better, isn’t it,” he said, though it wasn’t a question.
A harpy eagle, reminiscent of the harpies of mythology, puts in an appearance, toting a soul to Hades, no doubt. In fact, birds show up a fair bit.

The pharmaceutical company in question is called Vogel, German for bird. A large white bird, a jaribu stork, flaps through. In Egyptian mythology, this bird is associated with the soul of the dead communicating with the living. Feathered friends pop up a few more times, but I did not catch any obvious (or easily researchable) references from them. Marina is seen in avian plumage as well:
she was unsteady in her shoes, which, along with the ridiculous dress, made her the human equivalent of a bird with a broken wing to any predator who might be out trawling the streets late at night.
The color purple, the color, not the story, turns up several times. This is usually associated with either royalty or spirituality. I am going with the latter here. OK, OK. I know I tend to go overboard with such things, and it is always possible, likely even, that the author did not intend all these references. But just in case.

Finally hope as a theme comes into play. The core of the jungle research is a fertility drug. What could symbolize hope more than that? The dead researcher’s wife charges Marina with the task of finding out just what happened to her late husband. She harbors faint hope that he might still be alive. Swenson’s dedication to her work, and to keeping the corporate suits at bay, is based on hope for a great scientific breakthrough. Marina gains some hope of redemption. On the other hand:
Hope is a horrible thing, you know. I don’t know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody keeps pulling and pulling it.
But then:
Had they not been so hopeful [Marina’s parents] and guileless her birth would have been impossible.
Maybe things in Patchett’s tale are not quite so dark as in Coppola’s bleak vision, or as in Conrad’s. Some light does seep through. State of Wonder can feel slow—maybe like a journey up-river?—but while the story takes a long time to get where it is going, it is an enjoyable read, particularly if you like playing literary treasure hunt, as I do. There is content to be had, questions raised, moral dilemmas to be resolved, and some bio-tech issues to consider. This is a thoughtful and interesting read.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram, and FB pages

Aside from the personal link, all others center on her bookstore, Parnassus Books
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Reading Progress

January 21, 2011 – Started Reading
January 21, 2011 – Shelved
January 24, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-32 of 32 (32 new)

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Jill I'm glad we connected, Will. Your reviews are just sterling! The only book of Patchett's that I've liked is Bel Canto. The others, for me, have been 3-stars.

Will Byrnes Thanks so much, again. Although I did not put up a review of Bel Canto, I really liked it as well. (Probably read it before getting on GR. I may poke through the archives and see if I have anything on that.) Did not care much for the Magician's Assistant, and that is all I have read of Patchett. I might read another book of hers if it looks promising, but I will not exactly be chomping at the bit.

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship is Patchett's memoir of her relationship with Lucy Grealy, a severely disfigured woman she met at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. I did not read Patchett's book, so can't say if it is worthwhile or not, but I did read Grealy's, Autobiography of a Face. That was pretty interesting.

Will Byrnes Jill wrote: "I'm glad we connected, Will. Your reviews are just sterling! The only book of Patchett's that I've liked is Bel Canto. The others, for me, have been 3-stars."

Oh yeah, I was eager to toss in a line that I particularly enjoyed, but my wife, whose judgment I totally accept in such things, said that doing so would be appropriate only if I was slamming the book, which I am not. But outside the review, I think I can get away with it. In the final paragraph,
Maybe things in Patchett’s tale are not quite so dark as in Coppola’s bleak vision, or as in Conrad’s. Maybe we can think of Patchett's tale as The Heart of Dimness.
And there is a whole other paragraph to be written, by somebody, about how Marina, and others are wondering about their lives.

Beyond that, sorry about Da Bears, as I grieve for my Jets.

Jill I'm originally a Brooklyn gal. Midwood High School. As far as da Bears...when the Packers make a TD in the first two minutes, you know it's going to be all downhill from there. To quote the old Chicago saying, "Maybe next year."

Will Byrnes I hope Midwood was better back in the day. My older daughter (now 20) went there, and it was, to be kind, disappointing.

And as for football, my guys gave away so much early that even with their much vaunted capacity for coming back, it was too high a hill to climb. Two years in a row. Sheesh! Maybe three's the charm?

Jill Well, it WAS better back then. But my mom taught there -- sort of hard for me to play hooky. The whole area there has (to ALSO be kind) gone downhill...!

Sorry about the Jets. I know JUST how you feel.

Will Byrnes Claire wrote: "This is the first book of Patchett's that I've liked since Bel Canto. I agree that much of her books are not outstanding. I liked State of Wonder though and while it's no Bel Canto, I really like..."
I would love to see your review.

Jill Superlative review, Will. I did not read it when you posted originally, so as not to be influenced. But you truly captured my own reading experience -- in a much more cogent way than I did.

I, too, harkened back to Heart of Darkness. But I did not "get" all the references (color purple, Vogel, etc.) that you cite (Easter was an obvious one. So I congratulate you on your perception and insight.

I DID feel disconcerted that everyone seemed to LOVE this book except for me, but your review has just validated my opinion. And confirmed for me, once again, that I really, really want to check out your reviews before investing time and money.

Will Byrnes I blush. I quite enjoyed your review as well.

message 10: by Sara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sara Great review thanks! I missed a lot of what you picked up on, so thanks for sharing, since its helping me digest the book(which i finished last night). I picked up many different complex parent/child references and am still trying to sort those all out. Loss of a child, loss of a parent, surrogate parents, fertility...

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Sara, I would be interested to see what you have ferreted out.

Suzanne Outstanding review, Will. Thanks for doing all the hard work that helped me clarify my thoughts about the book. I loved it and loved the echoes (although they were "dim" ones) of "Heart of Darkness."

Bonnie E. Just finished this book, and it left an impression. So that 's usually a good sign. Read your review after I read the book, and have to agree with your impressions and rating overall.

message 14: by David (new)

David Sarkies I have been meaning to get back into Conrad for quite a while. Heart of Darkness is still on my shelf waiting to be read again (I read it once in Uni). You've given me a bit more of an impetus.

message 15: by Lela (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lela Love "Heart of Dimness!" Perhaps "Heart of Dusk"? I missed many of the references you saw which is not unusual. I am definitely not a literary ferret. But, I do whole-heartedly agree with your insightful review!

Michele This one left me a bit cold. It seemed she was trying to do something similar to The People in the Trees which I loved.

Marne Wilson You got so much more out of this book than I did. I tend to take the reader response view of literary criticism, so I'll say it doesn't matter if the author intended all the symbolism you found. Since you found it, it's there.

message 18: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Hah!. Maybe next time I can slip in an evil troll. :-)

message 19: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm I've always avoided this because I couldn't finish Bel Canto. Your review has made me reconsider my bias. I admire Ann Patchett because of her independent bookstore and I admire Will Brynes for his taste in literature, so I think I'll give this a try.

message 20: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I have read other Patchetts that did not do it for me, but I did get through Bel Canto and liked it a lot.

Rambling Reader I usually like Ann Patchett's novels, but this one just didn't do it for me. I found it convoluted. I was sad I could not finish this one. Maybe some other time.

message 22: by Jessaka (new)

Jessaka What a great review. I am reading the reviews of this book again because so far I can't stand this book.

message 23: by Jessaka (new)

Jessaka Michele wrote: "This one left me a bit cold. It seemed she was trying to do something similar to The People in the Trees which I loved."

It is boring me to death so I put it down for a while. Thanks for telling us about "The People in the Tress."

message 24: by Michele (last edited Aug 31, 2016 10:17AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Michele Jessica wrote: "Michele wrote: "This one left me a bit cold. It seemed she was trying to do something similar to The People in the Trees which I loved."

It is boring me to death so I put it down for a while. Than..."

If you like audiobooks The People in the Trees audiobook is one of the best I've ever heard. I've listened to it twice already.

Brooklyn Great review - you clarified a lot for me - and I think all the symbolism and references you pointed out were spot on. Maybe deeper than I gave the book credit for. Food for thought and gave me a deeper appreciation of the book which I admit I had many reservations about. It was also terribly moved by. And i did not find it slow ! Lol

message 26: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Joe. This really is a rich, evocative, and substantive read.

Cats,I'mAKittyCat Exellent review, Will. I prefer some Minecraft Meme books or ANYTHING MINECRAFT. If you already know what Minecraft is, dont read on.

So Minecraft is a game where when you spawn in a world (superflat or no I dont really care what you decide.) and literaly EVERYTHING is made of blocks: sheep, chickens, ocelots, EVEN YOUR CHARACTER SKIN!! There are THOUSANDS of skins out there. (Mine is the cat from the music video 'Cats, I'm a Kitty Cat'.) I LITERALY ALMOST SCREAMED WHEN MY DAD SAID WE HAD NO CABLE. And they have cool celebrations for Minecraft called 'Minecon'. AND you can get skins of the Mojang team with birthday hats on Minecraft's birthday in March or May.

So, if you havn't already, give Minecraft a chance.

message 28: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes CoolYoKittensYOUTUBEFAMOUS wrote: "Exellent review, Will. I prefer some Minecraft Meme books or ANYTHING MINECRAFT. If you already know what Minecraft is, dont read on.

So Minecraft is a game where when you spawn in a world (superf..."

Thanks for the kind words and the game recommendation. For good or ill I am stretched as it is to fit in the things I am already doing. If the day comes when the demands on my time are drastically reduced, I will be able to give it a look.

Peter Brilliant review Will, I really enjoyed this book.

message 30: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Peter. I quite enjoyed it as well.

message 31: by Bree (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bree Great review. I agree with your analogy of this book being like a slow journey up river, but it was an immersisve journey and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

message 32: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Bree. I agree.

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