629 of 661 people found the following review helpful
When one leading publication says to "expect miracles", a book has a lot to live up to. And indeed, in many areas, State of Wonder does meet its hype. Its vivid sense of place, for example, is truly magnificent. One can almost feel hear the buzzing and ravenous mosquitoes, feel the oppressive heat, recoil from the floating snake heads, and feel the power of the storms.
But at the end of the day, I was torn between one crucial question: is a book that is realistic also authentic? How do the two concepts merge...and how do they differ?
Ann Patchett, in State of Wonder, revisits the contemporary adventure story genre, with a provocative tale of an emotionally crippled doctor - Marina Singh - who embarks on an odyssey to the Amazon after learning that her pharma colleague Anders died there. His wife doesn't believe it...and her boss and love interest, Mr. Fox, entreats her to go there to find out what is going on.
He is, after all, invested in the outcome of the research that is going on there. Dr. Annick Swenson - formidable and inscrutable - has been there for years, reportedly working on a new drug that will have a massive effect on female fertility, with the prospect of making his company very rich. Dr. Swenson was Marina's former mentor and her associations with her are fearsome. As a result, the journey to the heart of darkness for Marina is also a plunge into her own emotional terrors.
The exploration of these terrors - along with the world of the Amazon and the Lakisha tribe - are masterfully done. But for me, in the end, the characters became sacrificed to the plot, pacing, and setting.
I did not believe in the relationship between Marina and her widowed older boss, Mr. Fox; neither seemed capable of sustaining it. Nor was the relationship between Marina and her doomed colleague fully developed. There were a number of missteps. For example, Marina must take a drug called lariam - a malaria preventative that can have major emotional side effects. She chooses to dump the lariam in the trash, exposing herself to almost certain malaria. As someone who has traveled to the region, I know that doxcycline can be used (not quite as effectively) for those who cannot take lariam.
Dr. Swenson comes across as very one-dimensional - uncompromising and rigid. Yet (no spoilers), she eventually produces a part of the puzzle based on supposition - which does not fit her character and beliefs. There are many examples of ways in which the characters did not react in an authentic manner, but to enumerate all of them would create spoilers.
It is always a little disconcerting to me when I am at odds with a majority of reviewers whose opinions I respect. I DO recommend State of Wonder for those who love plot-driven adventure stories that are well-written and have a strong sense of place. But for those of us who err towards characters, I can recommend only with qualifications.
274 of 319 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2011
I read "State of Wonder" before looking at reader reviews and was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to a book that I found to be average. Patchett takes on the ambitious task of bringing Marina's significant ambivalent relationships ~ with her dead father, medical school professor, office mate, employer-lover ~ along with the ethical issues of pharmaceutical R&D with indigenous cultures, into a cohesive whole. While the premise was good, the turn of the phrase distinctive and the socio-economic topic timely and important, there was something off with the total picture. The characters were flat and unlikeable, transitions frequently vague and despite the abundance of scientific information (questionable though some might be) and a vivid sensory image of life in the jungle, it did not draw me in. Patchett was successful in creating the heavy blanket of disconnect and ambiguity that defined Marina's personal and professional life, but on a whole, this was not a particularly memorable novel.
59 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 2011
State of Wonder is a nice enough book, but the hype -- all the way to NPR -- has been ludicrous, and I'm sure there are any number of people who would never have bothered to purchase or read this book except for the assurances that it was one of the literary events of the year. I'm one of them.
Be warned. The rest of this review actually discusses things that happen in the book, so if you regard anything that does so to be "spoilers," best take your literary cherry somewhere else.
Patchett is pretty obviously "re-writing" Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But the only mystery about her Kurtz -- feisty old Annick Swenson -- is why nobody has murdered her. She is the least charming brilliant eccentric I've ever encountered in a long life of reading. Patchett's Marlow is not a weary survivor but an angst-ridden, doubt-bedraggled unfrocked doctor who manages to reduce even life-threatening situations to the consequentiality of muddy shoes and an inadequate wine... and I think we are supposed to like her. Patchett's "ivory" is a fertility drug, and her "primitive savages" are a charming but clumsy tribe of New Age cliches. The 'darkness' turns out not to be too bad once you get used to it. This is a novel in which a major plot device is losing your luggage... twice.
What's wrong with State of Wonder is not what it is, but what it isn't. It isn't a careful examination of the ambiguous promise of a drug that makes women permanently fertile. The protagonist weighs that in the first ten pages, and nothing to come complicates her dismissal. It isn't about the morality or ethics of pharmaceutical companies: again nothing here would surprise anyone reasonably literate. It isn't about identity, although noodling about identity comes up now and then, as does noodling about reality and ethics and stuff. It isn't about the good -- or bad -- essence of the primitive, except in a sort of bland "Here I am, middle-class white lady, ministering to those disadvantaged by race... I wonder if that's Ok?" way. Dr. Swenson bowls that complacent racism over but her alternative is so self-serving and short-sighted that it's not worth considering.
It is by no means tightly and exquisitely plotted: As another reviewer pointed out, Dr. Swenson never seems to have noticed, in FIFTY years of research, that there's a downside to permanent fertility. We are to believe that Big Pharma would bankroll this project, with a thoroughly abused blank check, for ten years without so much as requiring a progress report. We are incidentally asked to believe that the same Big Pharma would pull the plug on a project that might offer a vaccine against malaria (because they hate the poor, you know). We are to believe that the death of a major character would be misreported out of embarrassment. We are to believe that a medical research station has discovered an almost incredibly rich piece of acreage and kept it secret for nearly fifty years... even from the neighboring tribes (and this in spite of the fact that the Healthy Cereal Indians make no secret of their own use of the acre's resources). It's all just silly. To the point that when someone gets around to having a page of illicit sex, the reader just thinks, "All right, get on with it."
Imagine a high school production of Neil Simon's Hamlet. Really. The only people who would go by choice are the actors' parents and Simon's mother. Patchett and her characters are just not up to the scale of the story. If you want to know why the Amazon is called 'Hell,' read The Lost City of Z or George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. If you want medical science, read the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is not as well written on the sentence level but vastly more interesting. If you want to read Heart of Darkness, read Heart of Darkness. Or rent Apocalypse Now. State of Wonder is the fuzzy bunny of darkness.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2011
Marina Singh, a pharmacologist at an American multinational pharmaceutical company that is based in Minnesota, is sent into the deep jungle of Brazil to find out the progress of a new fertility drug researched by notorious ethnobotanist Annick Swenson, who is also her former mentor, and to uncover the mystery behind the death of a colleague. Her trip opens her to a world of scientific wonders that stretches all imagination and tests her beliefs in science, nature and humans.
State of Wonder is medical sci-fi, jungle adventure, murder mystery and relationship drama lumped into one. If that's not ambitious enough, the story takes place in the heart of the Amazon. Reviewers said it is a re-imagination of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which I haven't read, but the tale definitely had the feel of a classic: showdown between two powerful characters in a perilous, mysterious land, where any twist of plot is possible.
Yet Patchett, who won multiple awards for her previous Bel Canto failed to deliver as her heroine felt flat, her voice inconsistent, the plot twits too strange for them to be believable. The quality of the writing and storytelling is uneven at best. Going through the pages was painful because you could literally feel the story gasping for air. There were too many speed bumps in the storytelling for my liking and in my opinion the climax passed rather uneventfully. But most of all it was painful because you know that this could have been great. What a shame.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2012
State of Wonder starts with Marina Singh learning that her lab partner, Anders Eckman, has died. Anders was sent by their employer, a pharmaceutical company called Vogel, to the Amazon. He was supposed to find out how far research had progressed on an advanced fertility drug that was being worked on by one Dr. Swenson. Marina is sent to the Amazon to finish Ander's investigation and also find out details about his death.
Right from the beginning, I had my doubts about Marina. She is described as being so good at her job, she never says no. Basically, she is relatively spineless. She is in a relationship that is clearly not progressing the way she wants it to, but she doesn't try to advance it, just hopes for the best. She loves Minnesota and has no desire to leave but gets roped into going to the Amazon. She continually caves if others are persistent enough. This makes an interesting contradiction when you find out she originally wanted to be an OB-GYN and think that high-stress doctor positions routinely require the ability to makes snap decisions on one's own. As the story progressed, I learned more about her and believed that she was becoming more self-sufficient. But, in the end, she allows a terrible thing to happen and she just sits by and watches. And then, right on the heel of one terrible decision, she makes another one. And there the book ends.
That ends up being true for the entire book. It feels like nothing actually happens. Marina doesn't change or grow as a character. Vogel doesn't end up with a fertility drug because the scientists are still working on it. While there are some surprises along the way, and the setting amongst a tribe of native Amazonians is very fascinating, this book feels more like an interlude than a conclusion to, well, anything. I also find the main plot point of the book flawed. I thought that the fertility drug would be something that would help women who were having trouble conceiving. But no. The drug just allows women who are already fertile to continue menstruating forever. I find the basic idea of women who bear children until they die of old age vaguely repulsive. Who would want to have a child at sixty or seventy? The drug doesn't increase women's life spans or make them physically healthier it just allows them to have children forever. At one point, Dr. Swenson says that she has just realized that woman past a certain age aren't meant to have children. Well, obviously. That is why women go through menopause. That is why the older the women when she conceives, the more dangerous pregnancy is for her. This isn't a scientific revelation, just common sense that any woman would know.
The actual nature of the fertility drug and the feeling that between the first page of the book and the last nothing has really happened made this book a disappointment for me.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
State of Wonder plodded along for over 100 pages before it engaged me at all. The story was constantly enticing me along with promises of character development, depth of story and intrigue that never materialized. For me, it was only in the final pages when the story began to take on life, and then it reaches a sudden unsatisfying conclusion that is hardly a conclusion at all.
Patchett could have gone deeper into the plot and characters. She clearly has the skill and imagination but seems to have come up short.
This is a book that as I read it early on I thought I would never finish. It may be in the category of some very popular books that I did not finish...Poisonwood Bible, Kite Runner and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Those are three of the very few books I have not finished, so it gives you an idea that this might just have not been my style of book.
I was interested in the whole concept of a researcher being in the Amazon studying a native tribe to discern a secret to fertility. The text of the book that creates life among the natives is interesting but involves little meaningful activity relevant to the larger narrative. Relationships that take a central role in the begining disappear and are not properly regathered to the narrative. There are several dead end relationships and subplots that could have effectively been developed but are for the most part abandoned.
This story created interest for me but in the begining and end it was unsatisfying.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2011
I once again feel the need to emphasize that I'm a tough grader. And I really want half stars...I'm not limited on my blog entry but I crosspost to Goodreads and Amazon, both of which have only whole star options that go up to five stars. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (who also penned Bel Canto which I enjoyed very much) is another 3.5 star book for me. I'm opting to round down here, a decision that really only came after the final pages of the book.
Marina is a research scientist with both an M.D. and PhD (I have many smart friends, the one I think is smartest is an MD/PhD so they impress me). She is working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota and is having a tryst with her older boss when they get a letter that a colleague has died. This colleague had gone to the Amazon to check on research done by another colleague (and a former teacher of Marina's) who is studying a remote tribe and is not really providing progress updates. After a request by the colleague's widow and her boss, Marina travels to Brazil and eventually the tribe in search of answers about both the researcher and the research.
I found a lot of the book interesting and enjoyed the different settings (MN lab, the city in Brazil, the remote location of the tribe). I thought the places were well-developed, at times moreso than the characters. I also found the research topic interesting and it raised some good questions about what we should and shouldn't do physically and about the complexities of research funding. The prose was easy to read but I didn't find it as engaging as I found Patchett's work in Bel Canto. I tend to be a reader of characters and style and felt more like this was a plot book....nothing wrong with that, just not my style.
So, through most of the book it was a solid like but definitely not a love, which put it in 3.5 stars territory. However, I really didn't like the way the ending went. It felt like the author rushed to wrap it up neatly in 20 pages and just did so to make it all clean and "complete." I tend to prefer messier endings. So, it got rounded down to 3. It's an easy read and I'd encourage folks to read it if they want a book that's easy but does have depth to the story and raises issues worth talking about.
This was another book provided by the lovely folks at Harper whom I thank for feeding my book addiction and leaving me the money for my red wine.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2012
Having read State of Wonder, I am so surprised to see all the 5-star reviews. Did we read the same book? Just really goes to show how people see things differently.
Let me ask you something ...
If your coworker had gone to somewhere in the Amazon jungle and developed a fever there, and then died, would you be eager to then quickly visit such a place yourself? Would you be likely to ask your lover to go there? I bet not. I bet you'd be extremely reluctant to go to such a dangerous place with such deadly infections lurking about. Yet, in State of Wonder, the story begins exactly that way. A worker dies, and immediately, the Big Boss asks his secret lover and colleague, Marina, to make the trip in the jungle, to find out what really happened to their deceased coworker. Umm, I don't think so.
So right off the bat, this book wasn't sitting well with me. Sure, the descriptions of the heat and the bugs in the jungle were interesting. However, the characters were poorly developed, and the dialogue often just didn't fit. The fearsome Dr. Swenson was the only character who was somewhat interesting, but her actions at the end were extremely out of character.
Finally, the ending was absolutely ridiculous. Without giving away spoilers, I'll just say that the last 10% of the book was so preposterous as to be laughable.
I think people who loved the book really enjoyed the descriptions of the Amazon jungle, and the actions that took place there. However, for someone like myself who likes interesting, credible characters, this book doesn't work.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 2011
I was conscious throughout the entire book that the author probably didn't have a background in science or medicine. It wasn't so much how the scientific vocabulary was dropped into paragraphs superficially, although that did bother me. I just never felt like the author ever experienced research science, biotech, medical school, or any of the students or professors in that world. I felt very much like this book was written by an outsider who knows enough to keep up at dinner parties. The nightmare daddy-issue sequences were painfully boring and didn't add to the character development after the second or third time I had to read them. I honestly can't remember the last time I read a book and skipped over so many paragraphs. I kept reading because the story was just good enough and because I'd already invested the time. It wasn't totally gripping.