Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

"State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Anders Eckman, a scientist, had been sent into the Amazon jungle by his company, Vogel, to get back a fellow scientist, Anneck Swenson, who'd been researching in a secret lab. The source of interest is the isolated Lakashi tribe whose women give birth well into their seventies. He should only have been away days but he's been away months. His boss, Mr Fox, gets a letter saying that he's died. He and Marina Singh, Eckman's ex-coworker (she's childless and 42), break the news to Eckman's widow, Karen. She has 3 young sons. She doesn't believe her husband's dead and wants Marina to find the secret lab. Fox tells Marina (who he has a relationship with) that even he doesn't know where it is, and suspects there's been no scientific progress for years. So Marina flies out, met by Milton, a chauffeur, at the airport. She hangs around in Manaus, a river port, waiting for Swenson to turn up, meeting her protective tenants, the young, attractive Bovenders.

Swenson turns up. She had been Marina's medical school teacher when she made a mistake during surgery. She and Marina head back down the Negro river in a little boat steered by a deaf native boy called Easter "into the beating heart of nowhere" (p.165). They discuss, shallowly, the morals of intervention. Later we read that "Dr. Swenson strictly forbade the sharing of the scientists' food among members of the tribe as she believed that a jar of peanut butter was more corrupting to indigenous ways than a television set" (p.215). Marina's Indian complexion helps her blend in. There are special trees that the village women gnaw at, special beetles and special mushrooms. These in combination seem to be the drug that also prevents malaria!

On p.246 we learn that Swenson, 73, is nearly months pregnant. My guess is that Anders was the father. Later, Swenson tells Marina to give a native a C-section, suggesting that Marina could later give Swenson a C-section.

Fox turns up at the camp with Mrs Bovender and Milton. Marina doesn't know how Mrs Bovender could have found the way (earlier she couldn't understand how she's not noticed that Swenson was pregnant). Swenson takes Marina aside and tells her that her baby died the day before and that she needs a C-section quickly. The visitors leave the next day. Marina had been hoping for a show of emotion from Mr Fox. It's Milton who's kind to her.

On p.229 Swenson suggests that Anders might not be dead - Mrs Bovender might have seen him on the journey to the village when they passed a cannibal village. So Marina goes with Easter to the village hoping to barter oranges, peanut butter and special mushrooms for Anders. Anders is there, but the tribe want Easter (who is one of them). Anders surrenders him and the two scientists return to the Lakashi village. Anders and Marina make love - "a physical act of kindness, a comfort, a sublime tenderness between friends. She would have made love to Mr. Fox if he had been there, and Anders wouldn't have made love to his wife" (p.350)

The novel's packed with coincidences (fair enough). I didn't really get the malaria-vaccine sub-plot, but for the most part the plot made me want to finish the book. I wasn't keen on her tell-not-show approach to character development, the long dreams that conveniently provide backstory. I can't help thinking that some passages should have been much shorter. There's redundancy at the word level too -

  • She put the question to Marina directly. "Is he dead?" she asked. (p.44)
  • There was no saliva in her mouth and without the lubrication the words were sticking on her teeth (p.48)
  • The people in the car understood that the goat had escaped his fate by no more than four inches, but the goat understood nothing. It looked up, mildly puzzled (p.94)
  • "I understand your point," Marina said, making a conscious effort to get along (p.98)

I liked the snake-killing scene and some of the street descriptions. The natives maintain their otherness.

There are printing errors - the last 4 lines of p.221 and p.223 are repeated at the top of p.222 and p.224 respectively.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads
  • Stephen J Burn (Patchett's novels typically derive their narrative energy from unlikely romantic entanglements that slowly unravel under the pressures of life ... It lacks the developed emotional core of Patchett's earlier books, but it is her most mature work to date, a novel that tries to be more alive to the nerve ends of philosophical life than to the simpler machinery of character motivation.)
  • Janet Maslin (Perhaps the temptations of the Amazon are overwhelming for any writer with such a gift for animating her surroundings. Perhaps the shadow of “Heart of Darkness” is too long and the allusions to other works too thick on the ground. And “Lost Horizon” for American ovaries? Perhaps Ms. Patchett intends that as the jumping-off point for a moral argument. But it’s a little too loony to be taken seriously. And it’s a horror that would have given even Joseph “The horror! The horror!” Conrad pause.)
  • Leslie McDowell
  • Laura Ciolkowski (Part scientific thriller, part engaging personal odyssey, "State of Wonder" is a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises.)
  • Ron Charles (Loaded as the story is with profound ethical issues, Patchett also knows when to pack light to keep the adventure moving. In fact, as the end approaches, “State of Wonder” crashes toward a breathless conclusion as though she’s being chased by a swarm of Amazonian wasps. This is surely the smartest, most exciting novel of the summer. )

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