State of Wonder: A Novel by Ann Patchett (New York: First Harper Perennial Olive Edition, 2014; originally published in 2012. 448 pp)
Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. Notably, she has won the Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books.
The Power of Story
Classically, the power of story resides in its ability to present a character that overcomes the odds. It might be the lowly knight that slays the dragon, the outcast in high school that gets the girl, the hard-working genius that pulls herself out of the standard stereotypes to be a difference maker in a powerful job.
Humanity, it seems, possesses an affinity for transformation. We want to see our characters move from point A to point B, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. Some transformations occur in action sequences—those slay-the-dragon moments. Others, emerge more slowly—that coming-of-age motif. Even when some storytellers subvert this tendency with narratives that circle back to the start with a suggestion that people inherently remain static, it feels affirming to engage in a narrative of change.
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is one example.
A Death in the Company
State of Wonder outlines the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmacologist who works for Vogel Pharmaceutical Company in Minnesota. Her world turns over when she receives a letter from the Amazon about her co-worker, Anders Eckman:
“The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerograme, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it in the world” (1).
After years of sharing a desk, Marina abruptly discovers the frailty of life. Vogel sent Anders to Brazil to check on the truculent Dr. Annik Swenson, who currently researches the long-term fertility abilities of the Lakashi tribe. Vogel funds this research in hopes of developing a drug marketed toward post-menopausal women looking to bear children. Trouble is—for Vogel at least—Swenson refuses to play nice and give prompt updates about the work.
The Pharmacologist’s Journey
Vogel’s president and Marina’s secret lover, Mr. Fox urges Marina to make an Amazon trip, to see what really happened to Anders, but more importantly to the bottom line, to get an update on this wonder drug. And so Marina ventures to Manaus, the last outpost of civilization before pure wild, awaiting a visit from Dr. Swenson and a potential trip to this mysterious tribe, deep in the jungle.
In this expedition, Marina must face many fears. For starters, she’s a Minnesota girl at heart:
“Marina was from Minnesota. No one ever believed that. At the point when she could have taken a job anywhere she came back because she loved it here. This landscape was the one she understood, all prairie and sky” (37).
Secondly, Marina must encounter the deleterious influences of the antimalarial drugs she must take. Having spent much of her childhood visiting her dad in India, the reoccurrence of devastating dreams finally clicks:
“She had grown up believing that India gave her nightmares, seeing her father gave her nightmares, when all along it was the antimalarial. The drug, not the circumstances of her life, destroyed her chance to be with her father” (44).
Much of the scars from childhood had nothing to do with her family situation, it was a drug!
Everything that Wasn’t Green Became Green
The power of State of Wonder, however, lies in Patchett’s ability to present Marina as this fish-out-of-water case. The reader first encounters a Midwest homebody, a person who can’t see the forest for the trees:
“All Marina could see was green. The sky, the water, the bark of the trees: everything that wasn’t green became green” (196).
Yet as the story unfolds, we see a women gaining strength in who she is and what she can bring to the world. Such notions reinforce the power of story, where characters encounter positive change through trials and tribulations.
In short, State of Wonder is an excellent read. The character building is pristine and Patchett’s prose is engaging. Well recommended.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5