carol. 's Reviews > State of Wonder

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
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it was ok
bookshelves: female-lead, lit-fiction
Recommended for: perhaps Patchett fans?

Alas, I did not reach a state of wonder reading this. I would say I was in State(s) of: Interest, Appreciation, Mild Irritation, Interest Modified by Moments of Irritation, Shock, and then Milder Shock that dwindled into a State of General Annoyance, which would possibly make it the longest book title in history.

A super-summary: Although she trained as an OB/GYN doctor, Marina is working in service of evil a pharmaceutical drug researcher who has studied cholesterol for the past seven years with her co-researcher, Anders Eckman. (For those of you not familiar with the pharmaceutical industry, let me give you the subtext: this product is about making money. Marina has gone from supporting the growth of life and healing to outright capitalism). Anders had been sent to remote Brazil to check in on a study the company is funding, searching for the source of a remote indigenous group's surprising fertility. Coincidentally, the head researcher is Marina's former supervising doctor before she dropped out of the OB/GYN program. One day, the head researcher, Dr. Swenson, sends an note saying Eckman has died, and Mr. Fox, who Marina calls 'Mr. Fox' despite having an affair with him, sends Marina to Brazil to investigate.

Marina's a product of both Indian and Minnesotian Norweigian heritage, and part of State of Wonder seems to be about her reconciling her life. I say "part," because while she is suffering from anti-malaria drug dreams, she usually dreams about her Indian father and not the white mother who raised her. The history never quite makes the jump from dreamland to reality, however, and only emphasizes the extent to which she is disconnected from her own life. The thought of meeting Dr. Swenson again also brings up lingering conflict about her medical residency in obstetrics, and her decision to leave the program.

Apparently, the overall story themes bear some parallels with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which I have not read. Perhaps then this book would have resonated more. But do we really need a feminine re-interpretation and modernization of "man-goes-to-heart-of-Africa" novel? It's rather an obnoxious premise: journeying to the wilderness to find the source of female fecundity. Um. Is it possible to be less literal about the journey to discover self/the heart of female mystery?

I was half expecting the imperialist overtones, so to have a narrator who hails from multiple ethnic backgrounds was an interesting twist. It felt a little like a crutch, however, to have her hail from Minnesota and raised by her white mother; as if then Patchett could draw on her own voice and not develop the voice of someone who moves between multiple cultures. It reminded me quite a bit of Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible in that people who identify with American-dominant culture are transplanted to the most remote place possible and set up to interact with "primitive" cultures. (Understand, I'm in no way calling the other cultures 'primitive,' just that the culture clash is set up as two extremes from an imperialist perspective).

I do enjoy Patchett's prose, which is what ultimately saved this book. The first paragraph begins with an Aerogram, and anyone who has used it can identify with the description of "a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world."

I was particularly moved when Marina wanted to dog to stay as they broke the news of Anders' death to his wife: "'I like dogs,' Marina said, thinking it was vital that he stay. The dog would have to stand in for their minister if they had one. The dog would be Karen's mother, her sister, whoever it was she wished was standing next to her when everything came down. The dog would have to be Anders."

Unfortunately, her prose could not quite bring Marina to full, vivid life. She drifted along a path set by other people, and persisted in lacking any agency in charting her own fate. She is disconnected from herself and her world, making it hard for the reader to care about her. Furthermore, as someone who is deeply immersed in medical culture, I didn't feel she represented or conveyed the voice of someone who invests in medical school to become an OB/GYN. She lacks passion for people, a commitment to her community and a drive to succeed. As a character, we have very little information on how she spends time besides her work in the lab. Dr. Swenson, on the other hand, is a dynamic force of a person, directing, orchestrating, manipulating. She is a far more interesting person, even though she is not particularly likeable.

What ultimately decreased my rating was the ending. Marina spends pages and pages getting to Brazil, pages and pages waiting in the city, Manaus, and then some time acclimating to the jungle, but in the last 25 pages, Marina makes a major discovery and two extremely significant events occur that will reverberate throughout many lives. After the slow build, it was shocking; though it technically resolves plot points, it was an emotional cliffhanger of an ending that seemed remarkably incongruous with the character development we had.

I've enjoyed Patchett's other books, specifically Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant, so I won't take Patchett off my 'authors to watch' list. Two-and-a-half star read.


Cross posted at http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2013/0...
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Reading Progress

November 14, 2012 – Started Reading
November 14, 2012 – Shelved
November 14, 2012 –
page 50
14.16% "never realized how similar the narrative voices of kingsolver and patchett are. Also, confusing in the beginning but using both first and last names. Do people really do that?"
November 20, 2012 – Finished Reading
December 6, 2012 – Shelved as: female-lead
December 6, 2012 – Shelved as: lit-fiction

Comments Showing 1-50 of 69 (69 new)


Megan Baxter I like your title better. ;)


carol. Why thank you, Megan. I was so dissatisfied with the ending, once I got over my shock, I should probably say it was the State of Lingering Annoyance.


message 3: by Arielle (new)

Arielle Walker Brilliant title! I would happily read a book with that name.


carol. Arielle, I will keep you in mind if I ever find a book so unfortunate as to be saddled with that title. ;)


message 5: by Trudi (new)

Trudi You rock lady. Consider me in a State of Appreciation :)


carol. Trudi! Arielle! Megan! State of Mutual Appreciation.


Romelle Berry I definitely like your title much better. More like State of Annoyance.


carol. Thanks, Romelle!


Laura Ellison This review was spot on. I am in a State of Admiration that you were able to so precisely sum up the issues in this book. The book had as much action and excitement as Marina and Mr. Fox's romance. The activity at the end left me in a State of Bewilderment.


carol. Thank you, Laura. It was a very misnamed book ;)


message 11: by Gina (new) - rated it 3 stars

Gina Hebb I couldn't agree more about the ending. I found myself wishing for more information from Anders and possibly an "afterward" that would fast-forward us a year or so in the future.


carol. Isn't that the truth, Gina? It was so emotionally abrupt compared to the rest of the book.


message 13: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason "Alas, I did not reach a state of wonder reading this. I would say I was in State(s) of: Interest, Appreciation, Mild Irritation, Interest Modified by Moments of Irritation, Shock, and then Milder Shock that dwindled into a State of General Annoyance, which would possibly make it the longest book title in history." im sorry but that is brilliant. i havent even read the book and it still is brilliant. love when a review starts off with a bit of angst


carol. Thank you, Jas.


message 15: by Mary (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mary Durran Good review. I too found this novel somewhat contrived, a few too many cliches and the ending was an anti climax. Marina and her motives did not quite convince me. I also found some similarities with the Poisonwood Bible, only the PB was much better. I still enjoyed State of Wonder though, despite its shortcomings.


carol. Thanks, Mary. I like Pratchett's writing; she shines at atmosphere. Plotting needed some help here, though. Glad to hear you also noted similarities with PB. I love Kingsolver, although I haven't kept up with her latest.


Lorraine Weir Accurate review! Couldn't agree more. Well said!


carol. Thank you, Lorraine!


message 19: by Lettergirl (new)

Lettergirl State of Gratefulness...because I am halfway into this book and couldn't decide if I should bother finishing. I am a slow (read: lingering) reader, add to that the slow pacing without much payoff (other than her style of writing) and lack of empathy for Marina (disconnected indeed) and my decision is made. Next!


carol. Thanks, Lettergirl~ If you need the pay-off, peek ahead to the last three chapters or so. The rest is mostly introspective filler and Feminism&lifeforce 101.


message 21: by Emily (new)

Emily I have been wavering on this too-wanted to give her a chance to get to Brazil before I decided. Doesn't sound like I'm going to like it any more as it progresses. Thanks for the detailed review!


carol. You're welcome, Emily. It speeds up later but remains problematic.


message 23: by Jen (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jen Loved your review - I thought it was spot on. Just wanted to say that I completely agree re: the parallel/comparison you drew between State of Wonder and Poisonwood Bible.


carol. Thanks, Jen.


message 25: by Zanna (new)

Zanna <333


carol. thanks, Zanna!


message 27: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Carol. wrote: "Thank you, Laura. It was a very misnamed book ;)"

Yes, to what do you think the title referred? I don't get from your review that any characters were particularly wonder-filled.

I'd in fact be more likely to pick up something called State of Lingering Annoyance. Potentially funny.


carol. Hmm, good question, Miriam. I would say, just perhaps, the protagonist, once she reached the deeper jungle of Brazil was then filled with wonder. But until then it was more like a State of Passivity, or a State of Lack of Empowerment.
Feel free to use State of Lingering Annoyance as your next book title. ;) I bet you could do fun things with it.


message 29: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Thanks! It would also be a good chapter title for one of those historical fictions with the faux-Victorian chapter headings. You know, "In Which Our Heroine Finds Herself in a State of Lingering Annoyance."


carol. Clever!


message 31: by Zanna (new)

Zanna Haha I like this book already Miriam...


Shaya It reminded me of Conrad's Heart of Darkness but I hadn't quite connected the female fecundity piece to it. I found the depictions of the tribes a bit worrisome in that I felt like I was being fed stereotypes of indigenous people but don't actually know enough to identify them.

Nice review!


message 33: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Zanna wrote: "Haha I like this book already Miriam..."

Somebody witty should write it so I can read it.


carol. Thanks, Shaya! I agree, I felt like there was something very odd and uncomfortable about the indigenous people, and didn't feel it was done that well.


carol. Miriam, I believe Zanna and I nominated you to write the witty and thoughtful piece about the Heroine Who is Easily Annoyed... I am willing to co-write, but I am involved with another book at the moment. Trudi and I are writing the Great American Novel. It's about the zombie apocalypse, of course.


message 36: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King Carol,

Well now that's what I call a great review!


carol. Thanks, Lynne!


message 38: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King Well thank you for writing it Carol!


message 39: by Madhu (new) - rated it 1 star

Madhu R Fantastic review


carol. Thank you, Madhu.


Stephanie Gustafson Exactly. Your description of your emotional progression was mine exactly.


carol. Thanks, Stephanie. A pity, as I liked her earlier two books.


message 43: by Lata (new)

Lata Nice review! This isn't one I'd have considered anyway, as I don't normally read Patchett. I am disappointed by the author missing various opportunities to make points, or explore a situation, as you point out.


carol. Thanks, Lata.


Vallery Feldman This expressed my views exactly. Although I did like the 'happy ending'. I loved Bel Canto. This was a disappointment.


carol. Thanks, Vallery. I enjoyed Bel Canto as well as Magicians Apprentice. This was a let down.


message 47: by Orient (new)

Orient Great review, Carol and a great collection of states ;)))))


carol. :D Ha! I had fun writing that :)


message 49: by Judi (new) - added it

Judi Gives me pause for thought as I have it on my "to read" list.


carol. Well, hopefully you get better mileage than I did.


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