three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
By: 
Ann Patchett
user_rating: 
0

A-StateWonderAnn Patchett, the best-selling author of six novels and two works of nonfiction, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002 for Bel Canto (2001). She has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines, including Elle, GQ, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post. Recently Reviewed: Run (4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2007).

The Story: "I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago," reveals Dr. Annick Swenson, a brilliant but prickly ethnobotanist whose research in the remote Amazon rain forest could revolutionize fertility and childbirth. Anders Eckman had been dispatched to find Swenson by the increasingly anxious pharmaceutical company bankrolling her research after she ceased all contact, and the news of Eckman's death prompts the company's alarmed CEO to send another envoy, Dr. Marina Singh, to find out what really happened. Singh, however, harbors a painful secret connected to Dr. Swenson, and during her journey, she is forced to confront the ghosts of the past as well as the deadly hazards of the jungle.
Harper. 368 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9780062049803

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Try to pace yourself while reading, because State of Wonder is ... a breathtakingly emotional and intelligent disquisition on ethics and responsibility, a sensory onslaught of the flora and fauna of the jungle (much of it as deadly as it is beautiful), and the role and limitations of science and rationality in how we construct the meanings of our lives. State of Wonder is above all a mesmerizing, wildly impressive and transformative novel that surpasses even Bel Canto in its ambition and deeply satisfying success." Jill Owens

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"In a novel as intoxicatingly strange as it is forbidding, she unfolds an intricately moving Heart of Darkness story set in the Amazon jungle. ... Patchett drops Marina into a world that is hypnotic, strange, and so terrifyingly real, you can virtually hear the storm of insects buzzing about your head." Caroline Leavitt

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"When an author has written a prizewinning book of the stature of Bel Canto, there's always a measuring--is this new book as good? Yes, it is. ... Like Bel Canto, this new novel is similarly imagistic and dreamy, thoughtful and complex, sharing many traits with Patchett's best known work." Susan Grimm

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Not until Marina comes face to face with Swenson does this unexpectedly meandering novel find its focus. ... It is Swenson who is far and away the book's best-realized character. And the reader drifts past many so-so secondary figures and generic tropical scenery before her presence is really felt." Janet Maslin

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"State of Wonder veers between silliness and brilliance, mixing lowbrow cinematic moments (think Avatar) with highbrow literary aspirations. ... The impatient reader should stick with it, because once Marina's dangerous journey into the Amazon begins, the novel becomes feverishly exciting and surprising. Hold on tight and forget old Conrad--now it feels like James Cameron is at the controls of this riverboat, full throttle." Jocelyn McClurg

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"State of Wonder seems more blatantly commercial and less interesting [than Patchett's prize-winning best seller Bel Canto], with characters drawn from central casting and the ending in clear sight from the start. What saves the book from the ordinary is Patchett's sensitivity to language. In an increasingly inarticulate world, she is an unrepentant wordsmith, terrific at setting scenes and playing with metaphorical images." Ellen Emry Heltzel

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"The portentous mechanics involved in stage-managing an overpopulated, high-concept thriller ultimately dull Patchett's perceptive observational powers. Her signature facility for commingling dreams and consciousness, past and present, the living and the dead, gives way to one too many foreseeable twists and a preponderance of academic shop talk." Jan Stuart

Critical Summary

"A feminized version of Heart of Darkness" (Los Angeles Times) that also tips its hat to Charles Dickens, Henry James, and H. G. Wells, State of Wonder examines the transformation produced in individuals yanked from their familiar surroundings and untethered from society. Patchett's secondary characters may add little to the story, but Singh and Swenson stand out against the vividly rendered, otherworldly backdrop of the jungle. And while the novel may take a bit too long to reach its denouement, the Washington Post considered Patchett's deliberate pacing time well spent developing relationships and setting the scene. Her fantastic, sometimes silly, plot twists may prevent some readers from suspending disbelief, but those who persevere will be rewarded with an unsettling novel "as intoxicatingly strange as it is forbidding" (Boston Globe).

Also by the Author

Bel Canto (2001): State of Wonder generated numerous--and varied--comparisons to its award-winning predecessor. In an unnamed South American country, terrorists break into the vice president's mansion during a birthday celebration. When they discover that their target, the president, is not present, they decide to take the partygoers hostage, and a standoff ensues, during which the lines between captor and prisoner are blurred.