Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Review - State of Wonder: A Novel by Ann Patchett

Title: State of Wonder: A Novel  
Author: Ann Patchett 
Year: 2011
Page: 368
Genre: Fiction- literary

FTC Disclosure: ARC copy from HarperCollins in exchange of an unbiased review

Summary (from
Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Ann Patchett returns with a provocative and assured novel of morality and miracles, science and sacrifice set in the Amazon rainforest. Infusing the narrative with the same ingenuity and emotional urgency that pervaded her acclaimed previous novels Bel Canto, Taft, Run, The Magician’s Assistant, and The Patron Saint of Liars, Patchett delivers an enthrallingly innovative tale of aspiration, exploration, and attachment in State of Wonder—a gripping adventure story and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of discovery and love.

Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past.

Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, and a neighboring tribe of cannibals, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side. 

First Sentence:
The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationary and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.

My Thoughts:

Why this book?
  • I have never read Ann Patchett before. I remember Aths from Reading on a Rainy Day highly recommended Patchett's other book, Bel Canto (read her review here). So when the ARC of this book was up for review, I decided to give her a try even though this is not a genre I typically like (remember, it has "A Novel" after its title!) I like the premise has something to do with the Amazonian jungle, science/medicine, mystery and adventure. So I thought I'd pick this over Bel Canto as my introduction to Patchett.
First thought:
  • Why-oh-why did you end the book this way...
Cover Art:
  • I guess the cover set the tone of the book - that this is going to be a slower-paced literary fiction, as opposed to a thriller (the premise totally could have been a fast-paced thriller!). I wonder why there is a dragonfly instead of a moth. It's not a book I'd choose based on its cover...
  • Just okay for me. I prefer titles that are more catchy or clever
  • Patchett's writing is probably what one would described as "lyrical prose". I am no expert on writing style, but her writing is how I would define as lyrical. Usually I prefer straight-to-the point-less-flowery writing style, but I actually quite enjoy her writing, as I almost felt like I was there, in the Amazonian jungle. 
  • There were some very long paragraphs though... e.g. went from bottom of p139 to top of p141. For some reasons sometimes I get lost in long paragraphs (which line am I reading again?)
  • There were some plot twists I didn't foresee. Some thought they were a bit unrealistic, but I thought hey, nothing is impossible! Plus this is FICTION. Made-up-stuff. I thought it was actually plausible.
  • There was one plot question concerning Dr Swenson that was not answered. It was asked by the main protagonist Marian Singh, but Dr Swenson was aversive about it saying it didn't matter. As a reader, I want to know! I think it does contribute to the storyline as it'd create different dynamics between the characters
  • I was enjoying the development of the story... until the last 15 pages (specifically from p338 onwards) where Marina and Easter went onto a boat ride alone... It took us over 300 pages to get there, and more things happened in the last 15 pages than the rest of the book? More about that when I discussed the ending below (no spoilers!) 
  • Marina Singh - I felt indifferent about her throughout the book, then I totally disliked her in the last 15 pages. I felt she didn't have much of a personality, and she acted much more immature than her 42 years of age I think. While she was well liked by others in the book, it seemed a bit one dimensional. I was totally disappointed in her in the end of the story by two things she did, or didn't do, regarding two different characters (I won't say their names or it'd be spoilers). I think if you had read the book you'd know what I am talking about, if not, ask me and I'd comment with a spoiler tag! I think those actions were totally not her character, not what the author had led us to believe anyway. It was almost like she was a different person. I was also disappointed with this other character who played a main role in the ending - again, this character acted like a different person! Some might argue what this person went through might have changed him/her, but it seemed a rather abrupt change as no details were given (and we had to make a lot of assumptions - which ironically, Dr Swenson had told Marina not to jump to any conclusions)
  • Dr Annick Swenson - I didn't like her at first as she seemed cold, but she won me over as the story developed as we started to see a different side of her. I think she's like one of those professors we feared but respected, and yet hoped they'd notice us and thought we're special - that we had the potential to be something greater than we thought we would ever be
  • Easter - he got to be my favorite character in the book! You can't help but feel for him. I also liked Milton. I think he's very perceptive. Mr Fox seemed a bit one dimensional - your stereotypical big corporate executive from an evil pharmaceutical company. I thought more could have been developed about him and the relationships he had with other characters in the book
  • Total disappointment for me. Definitely not one I had envisioned, and not in a good way. Now, I hate predictable books, but what happened here seemed so unreasonable and rushed. It goes beyond whether this has a happy or sad ending. It was almost like the author ended it that way just so there could be a twist. 
  • Two moral or ethical questions were raised: (i) should we leave natives alone or intervene if we could? Did they really want us to intervene? Should we help improve their lifestyle, by our standards, if we could? (ii) scientific or medical research on human subjects and consent. Is consent required when the subject does not understand the research, but the outcome of the research could potentially benefit mankind (including those human subjects)?
What I Learned:
  • The ending can totally make or break a book!
  • Someone else said she didn't like Bel Canto much because the ending was rushed. For those of you who had read both, or either of the books, what do you think? I know "rush" is relative though...
Read this Author again?
  • It depends on the premise I guess... I don't feel like rushing out to read Bel Canto at this point. Convince me otherwise! :)

Hope is a horrible thing, you know. I don't know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it's not. It is a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it. (p43)

"Don't be so self-referential. I was telling you a story. I wasn't telling a story about you." (p152)

He used to say we all had a compass inside of us and what we needed to do was to find it and to follow it. (p229)

Your story tells as much by what you leave out as what you put in. (p231)

In this life we love who we love. There wer some stories in which facts were very nearly irrelevant. (p233)

Overall Rating:
3 Stars. Would have been lower because of the ending, but I did enjoy the rest of the story so I think 3 Stars is fair if you "average it out"... If the ending was satisfactory, would've given it a higher rating.

All reviews and posts are copyrighted by Christa @ Mental Foodie. Please do not use or reprint them without written permission.


  1. Totally agree with you! I haven't posted my review yet but I say basically the same thing and make almost all the same points. I don't know what question you think was unanswered though but if it's the one I think, I believe the answer is Rapp (with the help of the freezer in the lab).


    Ok, so finally read your review and I can comment! :) I agree with you that I was disappointed with the last 15 pages. It was flowing so wonderfully and I knew she had something in store for the last few pages - I was expecting that, I just wasn't happy with it. I like that Anders was alive, but it would have made better sense for the story if he wasn't. All along I was expecting Marina to stay, and her decision not to, just felt out of character. How did the Hummoca keep Anders alive? Are they or are they not cannibals? What do the Rapps really do? Is it just a hallucinogenic thing? What's the link between the Martins and the Rapps? I am not so disappointed with the open questions - some of them, I didn't expect to see an answer to, since that is the nature of research itself.

    The ending was rushed and paced too fast. It happens in Bel Canto too, but I felt it made sense in Bel Canto. The first 300 pages of BC span 3-4 months and NOTHING happens during that time and the reader can actually feel it. The last 15 pages have a 2-5 minute incident happening, which always happens at a quick pace and understandably that was fast paced. I felt it fit there. But a lot of people had issues with the epilogue of BC. There's something stated there that made everyone go WHAT? I didn't think it was unacceptable or strange, but it depends on the reader. If you do read it, I'll be excited to hear what you thought of it!

  3. @rhapsodyinbooks - can't wait to read your review! I thought I was being a bit picky since it has received such good reviews. Yes you guessed the unanswered question. I guess it is plausible! I guess I just haven't thought of that, thinking of the lack of technology... but I don't know much about freezing so what do I know :)

    SPOILERS BELOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    @Aths - I was glad Anders wasn't dead. But I can't imagine why he and Marina did what they did - especially since he seemed to love his wife so much (and she him)? And Marina knows this... and I was heartbroken for Easter - both Anders and Marina loved him enough to want to take him back to the US, but in a blink, they just gave him up, just like that? To people they know are dangerous? I was surprised a bit that Hummoca didn't harm Andres, and seemed to even listen to him... I mean, even if the author decided to end the story this way, there should be more inner struggle about the decisions, instead of just "oh well, that's what it is". Regarding Bel Canto - I cheated to find out what happened in the epilogue because I couldn't help myself :) We'll see if I end up reading it at some point.

  4. Great review! I wasn't happy with the ending of this book either. I thought it was out of character for both Marian and Anders to just hand Easter over like that. I think we pretty much felt the same way about this book.

  5. @bermudaonion - thanks! Yes I think it was definitely out of character! I like a good twist, but it has to be plausible!