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634 of 684 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ann Patchett is a goddess
I am amazed by Ann Patchett's ability to write such riveting books about such a breadth of topics. Bel Canto (P.S.) is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, and I never thought she'd be able to match that. With this book, I think she has come close.

State of Wonder is the tale of an epic journey. After an employee of a pharmaceutical company dies in...
Published on April 8, 2011 by EJ

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609 of 640 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Wondrous Enough
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...
Published on June 7, 2011 by Jill I. Shtulman


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609 of 640 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Wondrous Enough, June 7, 2011
This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
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.
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634 of 684 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ann Patchett is a goddess, April 8, 2011
This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
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I am amazed by Ann Patchett's ability to write such riveting books about such a breadth of topics. Bel Canto (P.S.) is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, and I never thought she'd be able to match that. With this book, I think she has come close.

State of Wonder is the tale of an epic journey. After an employee of a pharmaceutical company dies in the Amazon, a fellow researcher is sent to find out exactly what happened to him. She is also tasked with clarifying on the company's behalf exactly how much progress has been made on the drug being studied there. The visual picture of the Amazon painted by Patchett is vivid and captivating and the characters are very well-defined and sharply rendered. The plot moves along at a nice pace, though admittedly it does slow a bit in the middle.

As for criticism, the science in the book is a little vague and seems slightly "off". However, the experiments are a sort of backdrop and not the main focus so it's not that big a deal. And Patchett does manage to cover an awful lot of political and ethical issues related to drug development and reproduction that are so nuanced as to appear to occur using sleight-of-hand.

Overall, another very strong book from Patchett and a definite recommend.
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267 of 310 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book that leaves me wondering, May 19, 2011
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This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
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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.
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73 of 82 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Strange and unbelievable, June 10, 2011
This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
I can't be the only reader completely astonished by the gushing reviews for this book. The lead character, Marina, is frustratingly, irritatingly passive. If you really examine her scenes she almost never makes full statements, while other people talk in long long passages at her. She does things because people tell her to, she has no spine until the last moments. She is haunted by nightmares that add nothing to the story. On top of all that, the natives (named, I learned on NPR, after Patchett's favorite breakfast cereal) are not humanized at all. We don't get to know any one of them -- not a one -- as a real human being. Basing them on a breakfast cereal is almost offensive. Lastly, the medical aspect of this is just absurd. Chewing on trees?! Really?? And if this wasn't enough, Patchett has added a further discovery besides life-long fertility, an anti-malarial component, that results from all the bark-chewing. How many miraculously implausible medical discoveries can one book take? The ending is bewildering, giving us no clue as to what to make of Marina by the end. Did Patchett mean this story to be comic? (She speaks often in interviews of thinking herself funny, although no one seems to get her humor.) A very frustrating read, perhaps more satisfying to critics than to a regular reader.
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156 of 181 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Boring Book Heavy with Anti-Science Bigotry, September 1, 2011
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saint eyebeat "eyebeat" (knoxville, tn United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
This book was recommended to me. My friend was sure that I would love it. I was very disappointed and struggled to finish it.

First, the good in the book is that the author spins a reasonably suspenseful story. It's not edge of your seat suspenseful but it's typical for middle of the pack fiction. When I think I know the ending of a book, I write down my guess and I guessed this ending by the time the main character got to Brazil.

Now, the bad and there's lots of bad. A recognized science fiction author writing this book would be laughed off the planet. So many elements of the "science" in this story are wrong and bizarre and it's not bizarre in a good way. The author has no clue what would be required to do the science she describes in the book. Since this is mainstream fiction and not science fiction, I guess you don't need to do the research. Without 10 tons or more of diesel generators, you could not outfit a lab to do what this author suggests these folks were doing in the jungle. The dropped comments about the FDA are plain wrong. The author doesn't seem to understand what a vaccine is. The errors are endless.

There is a very heavy handed bigotry in this book. The author drops comments here and there suggesting that scientists are without creativity. The main character lost her imagination when she took inorganic chemistry. Please. Scientists and engineers are the most creative people around. Discovery and imagination are their life. And, by the way, let's jot a little post-it note about the "scientists" in this story; they were not practicing science. They were just nuts.

Spoiler Alert!

A major political point in the story is that pharmaceutical companies will not fund vaccine research on malaria because they can't make big money on it since it is largely a disease of the third world. There is no doubt that making money is the primary goal of the pharmaceutical industry and, guess what, there IS big money in a vaccine for malaria. For example, our military desperately wants an effective vaccine and they are willing to pay big bucks for it. The reason there is no vaccine for malaria is not for lack of trying. It's because it is a very difficult beast to tame.

Finally, the prose, the descriptions, the basic tools of the novelist were not well used in this book. I did not feel the jungle. It was like reading a so-so travel piece in an airline magazine.

I don't like writing bad reviews. I want every book I read to be wonderful but this book was a poorly researched and boring and bigoted.
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233 of 273 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I Feel Insulted, November 6, 2011
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This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
I am amazed that neither Ann Patchett nor her publisher, Harper Collins, bothered to spend 5 minutes fact-checking State of Wonder. I am a fan, enjoyed Bel Canto and then read her other novels. Reviews of State of Wonder were gushingly positive, and since I am an OB GYN, I had a connection to the subject-- search for a fertility drug in the Amazon, missing scientist, I couldn't wait!

With both main characters being OB GYNs, I would have expected Ms Patchett to know that the residency is 4 yrs long, not five. The description of medical education is like nothing I have seen. Third year medical students and residents would not be attending the same lectures. Grand Rounds does not involve putting a trainee on the spot, it is a lecture by an expert. A fertility specialist would not publish articles about gyn surgery. There is no such thing as a "classic T incision" in a c section; the list of errors goes on. You don't have to be an MD to know that an epidemiologist does not give a traveler vaccinations; he studies disease outbreaks in populations. Scientific words and terms are sprinkled in as if for "seasoning", in a nonsensical fashion.

I don't know what to make of the characters addressing each other as Dr., or Mr., in the most intimate of relationships, personal and professional. I don't know anybody who is that formal with colleagues or students.

I did not expect science fiction when I read this novel, so I will not comment on the impossibility of the fertility drug and quest for eternal youth at the heart of the story. But what could the reason be for not making any attempt to frame the story authentically, and not to bother with basic fact checking? All of these errors were like little pebbles in my shoe as I read the book. From the interview above, I see that Ms Patchett prepared for writing the book by visiting the amazon for 10 days, and hated it. She might have spent an hour talking with a physician and scientist, even if she hated it.

I assume that Ms Patchett and her publisher were in a rush to get the book published, and they thought the readers would not notice factual errors. Well I noticed, and I am insulted by their lack of respect for their readers.
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111 of 128 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars 'State of Wonder' contains no 'wonder', July 29, 2011
By 
V. Webb (South Dakota) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
I absolutely love books which tell the story of people and places most of us will never have a chance to encounter in real life. In these stories (fiction or nonfiction), I absolutely must get the impression that the author has an in-depth knowledge of the locale he or she is describing and a multilayered understanding of the local societies and cultures.

Ann Patchett provides a bland, stereotyped, pretentious portrayal of the jungle, the local tribal people, and the professors that are apparently on some sort of rogue medical adventure (their research going unreported to the drug company that continues to fund them.....not a plausible scenario in real life). I have a degree in Anthropology from a world renowned university and never once did I ever hear one of my professors (even the old, white haired, spectacle sporting types)refer to indigenous people as "an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned". Granted, it is the harsh, unlikable 'Dr. Swensen' who says this, however, after years in the jungle and multiple degrees I highly doubt any professor would make such an ignorant statement.

In another passage, after the Lakashi tribe swims out in an attempt to board a boat, one of the other banal, dumb doctors in the jungle, makes the statement "They only want a little recognition. If you don't acknowledge what they're doing they just keep doing it. Frankly, I don't think they're such good swimmers. You can't drown half the tribe on the way to the trading post". Is this Patchett's attempt at a joke? As if a group of people living on the banks of the Amazon would allow their tribe to drown trying to get on a boat with a bunch of crotchety, white doctors. Quite frankly, if it came down to a competition as to who could survive the Amazon River, I'm sure it would be the tribal people with the last laugh. Throughout the entire novel the local people have no agency, no voice. They are a barely clad, spear waving, hallucinogen ingesting, silent, ignorant stereotype. One gets the feeling that Patchett herself hates the jungle and has based her entire novel on early colonial descriptions of encounters with exotic peoples and places. It does not even appear she has ever watched the National Geographic Channel, for god-sakes.

This novel contains absolutely no wonder whatsoever. The characters are weak and boring, especially the main character, Marina, who is also as dumb as a box of rocks (terrified by seeing a local boy jump in the water, thinking he will drown, she breaks into tears, never mind that he was raised on the Amazon River). It's as if some suburb dwelling, uneducated, white evolutionist has written a novel about what they believe a dangerous, 'primitive' jungle would be like. I prefer to read novels that convey a sense of wonder and respect. Don't waste your time with this book.
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69 of 78 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars State of Illogicality, June 25, 2011
By 
ABCarole "Beachlink" (Atlantic Beach, FL United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
Impressed by early reviews and excited at the prospect of another Bel Canto, I bought State of Wonder the day it hit the market only to find it as disappointing as Bel Canto was rewarding.

Why? Too many disconnects: a brilliant woman flying off to the jungle puts a rare GPS-equipped telephone, her only link to civilization, in a checked bag? A major pharmaceutical firm shovels money to an employee for years without any oversight or progress reports? Committed medical researchers find a cure for malaria and don't disclose it? A female physician never considers the negative aspects of old-age fertility until she's pregnant at 73? A 42-year-old woman has a problem calling her lover by his first name? A medical professor reputed for high standards lies about the death of a colleague?

This novel demands more `suspension of disbelief' than is possible for an intelligent reader.
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165 of 193 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Yep, I'm in a state of wonder, June 30, 2011
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This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
How could this second-rate book get such good reviews?

Marina has Ph.D. and MD. degrees, but she is so self-effacing that her boss/lover is referred to throughout the novel as Mr. Fox instead of by his first name. She lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and her character is as flat and affectless as the plains of the Midwest. Frankly, she seems too dumb to hold two advanced degrees, but she's about to change - right? - because she's going to be thrust into a hair-raising adventure deep in the heart of the Amazon.

Well, no. We have anacondas, magic blue mushrooms, poisoned arrows, and Marina remains throughout all this excitement flat as a pancake and dumb as a stump. Marina could make a wrestling match with King Kong boring. I think we're supposed to understand that Marina changes, because, really, how could you not be changed by an anaconda?, but the character seems to be the same plodding zombie at the end of the book that she was at the beginning.

I first really began wondering about the direction of the book when we arrive in Manaus. Marina meets the Bovenders, Dr. Swenson's gatekeepers, and - guess what? - the two of them are just as dull as Marina. These three boring people have many boring conversations. It's like Night of the Living Dead. Seriously, I was quite puzzled. What is Patchett playing at here? Is this intended to be a comedy of manners, but - alas - somehow the comedy was left out? Things do not improve when we reach the jungle. For one thing, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the inherent implausibility of the entire book. A group of scientists has essentially gone rogue in the jungle and the drug company funding the whole thing doesn't care? Yeah, right. It doesn't help at all that the characters in the jungle are, once again, boring, boring, boring. In fact, Dr. Swenson is the only character among the researchers who even has a personality, and the personality she has seems to have been borrowed from old TV medical shows.

The last straw for me was when the disappearance of a character was misreported. Was there some good reason to lie about this disappearance? Well, no, it was convenient for the plot, and Patchett doesn't even bother to make it plausible. Grr. Whenever an author does something like this the entire book is ruined, at least for me.

But, you know, Elizabeth Gilbert is right. The cover of the book is quite beautiful.
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56 of 63 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Grimly Over-Hyped, June 24, 2011
This review is from: State of Wonder (Hardcover)
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.
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State of Wonder: A Novel
State of Wonder: A Novel by Ann Patchett (Paperback - May 8, 2012)
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