I have a confession: I own Ann Patchett’s prize-winning novel Bel Canto, but I’ve never read it. I’ve tried several times. I get about twenty pages in, and then I get overwhelmed by the references to opera and foreign culture and lack of interesting characters, save the mysterious and influential Mr. Hosokawa. I understand fully that further into the book, the plot will develop and characters will pop off the page. The setting will be described to the most minute detail, all of which will create a rich reading experience.
But I haven’t gotten that far; at least, I haven’t been able to yet.
Patchett’s latest work of fiction, State of Wonder, worked exactly the opposite for me. From the first page, the first paragraph, the first word, I was drawn entirely into Patchett’s world. Main character Marina is both sympathetic and relatable. Although her choices may not be ones I would make, she is a character who connects to the reader in both manner and emotion.
State of Wonder was extraordinarily interesting to me as reading this summer because of the setting and plot. Marina embarks upon a journey to the heart of the Amazon, as part of an assignment for her employer Mr. Fox. She is primarily a research scientist who works with cholesterol data; field work is far beyond her norm. But Mr. Fox feels she is exactly the person for the job, and so -- being agreeable Marina -- she acquiesces to his demands. She is plunged into a new world full of confounding cultural customs and insects that attack.
I read State of Wonder just before leaving for a journey of my own to highly unknown territory: Africa. Although State of Wonder takes place in Brazil and the Amazon jungle, Marina encounters many situations and issues similar to that of the African bush. Marina takes Lariam, an anti-malaria pill that I was also prescribed before my trip. She recalls taking it in childhood before visiting her father in India, and the horrific nightmares that ensued as a result. My own fears were therefore exacerbated by Marina’s fictional experience; I put off filling my prescription because I was terribly afraid the Lariam would worsen my own life-long problem with vivid, erratic dreams.
I hate to gush unintelligibly from this point forward. The truth is if you are looking for a strictly academic review of State of Wonder, there are dozens of choices from reputable review sites all over the internet. Some links, if you are interested:
My interest in the book was multi-fold: my previous experience with Ann Patchett’s work, for one thing. I didn’t read Bel Canto, but I did read Patchett’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars and loved it. I also like the idea of reading local-to-me southern authors, and Patchett -- a Nashvillian -- fits that bill. Additionally, I saw Patchett speak and read from State of Wonder a few weeks ago in Nashville. Author events always drive me to read more from authors who I see and hear in person.
The plot is intricate and well-planned. It is new enough to be entertaining, but not overwhelming in its uniqueness (it’s real life -- no vampires or other-worldly creatures lurking about). Patchett’s ability to paint the setting is also an immense talent she possesses. The Amazon leaps off the page, with mosquitos buzzing and snakes slithering and tribal people living their day-to-day existence. Patchett’s characters are realistic and yet highly nuanced individuals. There are no stereotypes within the pages of this novel, but rather rounded, dynamic characters.
I had no idea when I purchased State of Wonder that I would feel as connected to it as I did. Even with all the positive buzz it garnered in its first few weeks after release, I still wasn’t prepared for it to grab me. I mean, let’s be honest -- oftentimes, buzz means nothing when it comes to personal connection and enjoyment. A oft-praised book can, for whatever reason, fail to work on the individual level.
But State of Wonder met all those expectations, and even surpassed them. Julie at Book Hooked Blog called it a book that “anyone and everyone can and should read. . . . [And went on to say:] Seriously. If you can read what I'm typing right now, there is no reason I can think of that you wouldn't love State of Wonder.” I wholeheartedly agree. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Prepare to be entertained and amazed. Now if I can just get past page twenty in Bel Canto...