State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

March 6, 2012

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.]