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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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