State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Having just finished State of Wonder, I was extremely surprised when Jeff O’Neal pegged Patchett’s solidly conventional bestseller as the odds-on favorite to take home the Rooster. The unexpected endorsement from O’Neal has me looking for reasons why my assessment is wrong.

In its favor, State of Wonder has good sales (having made the New York Times Bestseller list and being one of six TOB contenders highly ranked on Amazon’s sales list) and demonstrates good, if not particularly artistic, craftsmanship. As a commenter at Book Riot noted, the novel is meticulously plotted. If it is possible to be too carefully plotted, though, State of Wonder is. For, despite the title, everything that occurs in the novel is carefully foreshadowed to prevent anything truly startling from occuring. There are twists and turns to the narrative thread, but there are warning signs well in advance of every sharp corner in the road. On the one hand, this prevents the reader from feeling unfairly manipulated; on the other, this reader felt he was being led too carefully through a zoo rather than let loose in a jungle.

The story involves the search for a wonder-drug being developed deep in the Amazon forest by a seemingly rogue researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson. When the novel opens, Anders Eckman, having gone to look for Dr. Swenson, is dead. He and the protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, had been working together, stateside, at the same pharmaceutical company which sponsors Dr. Swenson’s research. The head of the company, Mr. Fox, had pulled Eckman out of the lab and sent him into the Amazon to find out what sort of progress Dr. Swenson was making and, hopefully, to talk her out of the jungle.

While working together, Dr. Singh and Eckman had developed a close personal, as well as professional, relationship, so Singh is hit doubly hard by the news of his death. Eckman’s wife, of course, takes an even bigger psychological blow, not least because she is left to raise her and Eckman’s boys by herself. It proves too much for her. Karen Eckman refuses, on the basis of a two paragraph letter from the secretive Dr. Swenson to believe her husband is actually dead. Dr. Singh tries to console her and move her towards acceptance.

”He’s dead, Karen.”

“Why? Because we got a letter from some crazy woman in Brazil who nobody’s allowed to talk to? I need more than that. This is the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to me. It’s the worst thing that’s going to happen to my boys ever in their entire lives, and I’m supposed to take a stranger’s word on it?”

There had to be an equation for probability and proof. At some point probability becomes so great it eclipses the need for proof, although maybe not if it was your husband. “Mr. Fox is going to send someone down there. They’re going to find out what happened.”

“But say he’s not dead….”

Karen all but begs Dr. Singh to go to Brazil to find out what happened to her husband. In a neat turn of coincidence, Mr. Fox also wants to send Dr. Singh to find Dr. Swenson, because Dr. Singh has a past connection with Dr. Swenson and, so Mr. Fox imagines, may succeed where Eckman failed. Dr. Singh is not sure because their connection is well in the past and involves a mistake Dr. Singh made during her medical residency as an obstetrician. Unfortunately for Dr. Singh, the incredibly talented and stern Dr. Swenson, her immediate superior at the time, was nowhere to be found during an emergency and Dr. Singh, handling it on her own, made an error. Dr. Singh was so shaken by her mistake that she abandoned the practice of medicine.

The tension builds very slowly but, from the short summary of the set-up, it is easy to see where certain things are going. Dr. Singh and Dr. Swenson will become re-aquainted in the Amazon, the incident during Dr. Singh’s residency will be important, Karen is correct to be suspicious of Dr. Swenson’s short report, though maybe not for the right reasons, and so forth.

Did I mention that Dr. Fox and Dr. Singh are slow-brewing a romance, that Dr. Singh and Eckman were not doing the same though Karen half-suspects they were, and that everything in the novel is bent in service of the plot?

Dr. Singh did not strike me as a particularly compelling character. While she is “a good person” and a competent researcher, she mostly seems to me a vessel into which readers can pour themselves. That, and a slave to plot. She likes puppies, dislikes mean people, is sure of herself when she needs to be, but mostly is not. She definitely is not sure of herself if she needs not to be. She is open minded about alternative (native) remedies, but just skeptical enough to avoid commitment one way or the other.

For instance, when she comes down with a fever, she accepts a potion from Dr. Swenson’s Manaus-based guardians, the Bovenders. Her fever passes and she credits the drink until Dr. Swenson passes judgment on the natives’ medicinal efforts.

”For these people there is no concept of a dosage, no set length for treatments. When something works it seems to me to be nothing short of a miracle.”

Marina remembered that cup of sludge Barbara Bovender had brought her from the shaman’s stand and wondered if she was no more than a Westerner given to the charms of boiled tinctures. It was a cure she would never admit to now.

This conflict between modernity and ancient wisdom dovetails nicely with Patchett’s moral concerns. What, for instance, is a US-trained physician to do when faced with a native’s medical emergency? Let them struggle, or treat them? The corrupting influences of the profit motive, the hubris of Westerners generally, and how those factors together can strip seemingly decent people of their morality are all raised. To Patchett’s credit, she does not lecture her readers on the correct answers to any particular conundrum but, then, she avoids that by avoiding, in my view, delving into these issues. They are like engaging billboards beside a highway. They pass the time, but they are not the point of the drive. The gravitational pull of the plot curves the path of each noticed idea back to plot.

The story-centric nature of State of Wonder leaves it feeling too-light, despite the emotional and physical rigors through which it puts its characters, to seriously contend for the TOB title. At the end, you have had a good story well-told but not much else. I simply do not believe this sort of novel can win this sort of contest. Many of its competitors are flawed, but ambition counts in the Tournament. State of Wonder‘s primary ambition is to keep the reader engaged in the story. It does that well and with a practiced literary hand.

The best books, though, use their plots to make strong arguments. Patchett reversed her priorities, it seems to me, leaving any arguments put forward as weak as Dr. Singh’s waffle on the effectiveness of local “medicine”. The biggest ethical decision Dr. Singh is forced to make ends up being made for her. The lack of a coherent argument (not message, a simple message book is much worse than this) renders State of Wonder defenseless against its more aesthetically and ethically ambitious competitors.

[Edited after posting: At some point, I started typing “Eckerman” rather than “Eckman”. I have fixed those errors.]

17 Responses to State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

  1. I had high expectations of this novel, since I loved Patchet’s earlier novels Run and Bel Canto. I can also see why it is a bestseller: the writing is lovely, it has an engrossing story and works just fine on the plot level, which is why I did enjoy reading it. Unfortunately I have two issues with this book. The first has to do with the pregnant seventy year olds and their rituals in the forest. For me this somehow struck a false note. I found the whole thing rather silly, belonging in a mediocre sf novel, not in a novel that has more pretentions than that.The other thing that did not work for me was that there were too many issues going on beneath the level of the plot. All these issues could have been interesting if they would have added up to moral ambiguity and, consequently, food for thought. Instead (for me at least) they simply resulted in a lack of coherence in vision.

    • Kerry says:

      I absolutely agree with your two issues. Dr. Swenson’s sudden change of heart when her own pregnancy goes awry is utterly unconvincing. Everything suddenly changes because she was uncomfortable? That was completely out of character and, as you say, belonged in a mediocre to poor sf novel.

      The multiple issues thrown out were never dealt with in any serious or coherent manner. One would rise up and, then, dissolve before any of the characters really had to deal with it. “Lack of coherence in vision” perfectly sums up this latter problem. The novel ended up being about nothing. (Though somewhat entertainingly so.)

      Thanks, so much, for your comment. And not only because you seem to mostly agree with me.

  2. Amy says:

    Well, I already noted in yesterday’s comments why I didn’t love this book. But for me it was just a building-up of so many little details–the screwed-up MN stuff (dear Ms. Patchett: Google is a good tool for looking up names of international airports), and the little things I found myself not really able to believe (how long had she been having an affair, and she still called him Dr. Fox? Really?). Sad. Could have been really good.

    • Kerry says:

      I don’t know enough about MN, but I, again, do completely empathize with that situation. I am having a similar problem with Salvage the Bones. When an author gets something you know wrong, it really does damage to the author-reader relationship (as you pointed out yesterday). It is almost irrecoverable, even if the detail is, all things considered, minor.

      But, you are right that in State of Wonder, it isn’t only little things. Wherever romance went, there incredulity followed. “Mr. Fox”, indeed.

      SPOILER: And then the Singh/Eckman episode? It felt so false.

      Marina seemed so milquetoast a character, and not in a good way like Toibin’s Eilis in Brooklyn. She seemed to do whatever the plot or her author dictated. I could see the strings, in other words.

      • neighbors73 says:

        I am quite curious to hear you thoughts on Salvage the Bones, in terms of what it gets wrong. Will you be posting a full review of it?

        As for State of Wonder, I too found the book to be a solid yet conventional effort. But in some ways, at least compared to the rest of the field, it’s a winner. At least it solidly accomplishes what it sets out to do. Even the ridiculously “tied up with a bow” –and a strongly hinted at pregnancy for Marina–is preferable to a failed ending…and really, almost every other TOB book’s had what I would call a failed ending. Hmmm…I will be interested to read the commentary for the rest of the Tournament.

      • Kerry says:

        I will be posting a full review of Salvage the Bones. I’m not quite done yet. I hope to get to Open City within the next week or so too. Just in time for it to be ousted, possibly. But still.

        I cannot say I had the same problems with the ending of The Sense of an Ending as did you. I didn’t think The Sisters Brothers had a particularly bad (nor good) ending. But I get your point. I think endings are incredibly hard to do well. In some ways, I like the New Yorker approach (i.e. “remove the last paragraph and you’ve got a typical New Yorker ending.”) Just lop the last page or two off of most novels and it improves them. That’s my fantasy anyway. I’m not sure it actually works……

        I am eager to see what Wil Wheaton has to say….and, if necessary, Mazzoli, Rosenberg, etc.

      • I’m so glad you mentioned Marina and Eckman. It was so forced. The romance with Mr. Fox was implausible enough without making it worse. Maybe it was just everything involving Marina felt forced. I see what you mean about the strings.

      • Kerry says:

        Thanks for the comment! I agree entirely. The characters were often more like puppets than people.

  3. Much talked about, her work has been on my radar for a while, but for some reason I failed to finish ‘Bel Canto’ after two separate attempts and have run shy of picking her up again despite being much talked up.

    • Kerry says:

      I have not read, or attempted to read, Bel Canto which, based on rumor, I assumed would not be to my liking. I feel no need to warn you away from this one. It is perfectly readable; Patchett isn’t a hack, certainly. But neither do I find it in any way necessary. My own advice would be to spend the time on something else (particularly as your recent reads suggest you’ll find something better anyway).

      Thanks for the comment! (And I have Suite Francaise staring at me right now…..I wish it was in the TOB.)

  4. Steph says:

    Totally agree with you… I thought this book was good, but it wasn’t remarkable to me in any way. I enjoyed the story and found it an absorbing read, but I don’t think this is the kind of book that transcends its own pages (if that makes any sense), in that I don’t think it really said much about the world in general or human nature that wasn’t obvious or trite. That’s fine since sometimes you want a book that just tells you a ripping tale, but I don’t think this is the kind of book that stands up against some of the other ToB competitors.

    (Also, this was my first Patchett who I am predisposed to dislike for myriad reasons that I won’t get into here, so I think the fact that I really didn’t hate this book at all, despite being prepared to, has made me think it better than it really is… my bar was so low!)

    • Kerry says:

      I am pleased not to be alone in my views of Patchett’s novel. I will be interested to read what the first judge has to say. Based on comments here and others’ reviews elsewhere, I don’t think we are out of step with the majority opinion. Not that that means much, but it’s nice not to seem like the one reader who just doesn’t get it.

  5. Lisa Isgitt says:

    I was so disappointed in this novel. I’ve read and loved most of Patchett’s novel, but this fell short. I’m glad to know that I am not the only one.

  6. Shara says:

    I have just started this book and am stuck on page 26. The conversation between Mr. Fox and Marina started on page 23 in a restaurant, continues on through 26, where they are suddenly in his office.
    Is this just bad editing and a book that I should abandon, or have I missed something?

    • Kerry says:

      I apologize for the delay in responding. You’ve probably either finished by now or abandoned the book. My recommendation is that, if this isn’t your cup of tea by page 26 and you have editing concerns, leave it alone. Find something else. I was very underwhelmed. Others have lauded it as one of the best of 2011, but I fail to see how it makes any such list.

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