Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, a book review

“STATE OF WONDER,” is a 21st century fairy tale. The Ann Patchett novel explores, among many things, the potential for human excellence, the power and consequence of romantic love, the implications of paternal presence and absence. Perhaps most importantly, the story reveals our willingness to deceive, disappoint, and betray one another. But also our ability to persevere and survive.

Read State of Wonder twice. It’s that good. I missed most of the message on first reading. I’m planning to give it a third go, a few years hence. I can’t wait to see how the story stands the test of time. After two readings, I think it has “classic” stamped all over it.

State of WonderOne reader called State of Wonder “A life-changing experience.” For anyone paying attention, it is a life-informing experience, at least.

As a story, State of Wonder is a tale of grand adventure, bordering on science fiction, in a faraway and dangerous place.

The journey takes us from frozen Minnesota to steaming Amazon jungle. It’s the archetypical plot of ancient and modern literature. To wit: The hero leaves home; the hero returns home.

First the hero, Dr. Anders Eckman, departs on a great quest, which includes birdwatching and searching for a disappeared mad scientist. Dr. Eckman contracts a tropical fever and perishes.

Now comes the heroine, Dr. Marina Singh, an unwilling volunteer on a mission. The heroine departs partly because she’s guilt-tripped into it, and partly because she’s in love with the anti-hero, a CEO named Mr. Fox. He stays home, at least for now. What a man! Mr. Fox must remain behind to keep the ship from sinking. In this case, the ship is a corporation. But never mind.

Is the brilliant (mad?) scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, seemingly lost in the jungle without even a telephone, the true heroine? Or is she the villain? Whatever, Dr. Swenson understands the hard truth, when it finally slaps her in the face.

“I don’t know another story to match this,” says she.

Correct. There is no story to match this, at least not since Homer. Or maybe Adam and Eve. Forgive my hyperbole.

The icy Dr. Swenson inspires unwavering loyalty, admiration, and fear. She’s a central character here, but not THE central character.

The central character is our overeducated and slightly naive heroine, Dr. Singh.  All the leading characters seem to be doctors, if you don’t count the endearing little boy, named Easter, who happens to be deaf.

Marina Singh is a humble but daring protagonist. She wanders alone in a sweltering, alien city, braving deadly insects and malaria day and night. She travels by small boat down unknown tropical rivers, deep into the dense Amazon jungle.

Our heroine is fearful, but overcomes all fears. She battles a fire-breathing dragon. And slays it with a machete.

(Time out for truth in book reviewing: OK, it’s NOT a fire-breathing dragon. It’s ONLY a poison-spitting boa constrictor, powerful enough to squeeze the life out of a child, and possibly also devour a grown man. This snake is a creature of mythic proportions, a perfectly good stand-in for the archetypical dragon.)

Dr. Marina Singh performs life-and-death surgeries under primitive conditions. She ingests the bark of the tree of eternal fertility, but eschews the hallucinogenic blue mushrooms.

Most importantly, Marina discovers a great truth (I’m not giving it away!) and uncovers a great deception (read the book!).

After all these labors, Marina finds and rescues our original lost hero (Dr. Birdwatcher) and returns him home at last to his family in Minnesota, where it is now springtime.

Ann Patchett has written five other novels and a couple of non-fiction memoirs. She’s only of a certain age, so probably she will write many more books. State of Wonder is, I believe, her masterwork. My review of Ann Patchett’s novel “Run” is here.

I’m tempted to nominate State of Wonder to be a Great American Novel, except that most of the story takes place in the Amazon jungle.

Tell me, have you read State of Wonder? Or Run? What did you think of Ann Patchett’s work?

— John Hayden

Uncommonly Good Books By Great American Writers

It’s not exactly writer’s block. But I have chronic difficulty writing about exceptional  books and great American authors.

How long has it been since I promised to finish my review of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy?”  Is it a novel about small-town life, or hypocrisy, or intolerance, or poverty? Local politics gone crazy, or class warfare? Darned if I know. I’d have to read the whole thing again to sort it all out. (Rowling is British, but her story resounds in American culture.)

As I read the final page of “The Casual Vacancy,” I was struck speechless. Partly it’s a sense of grief that the book is over. Partly it’s awe at the author’s virtuoso performance. What can I say but, “Bravo!”?

ANN PATCHETT

ANN PATCHETT

Among contemporary authors, Ann Patchett amazes me the most. I never wrote a word about Patchett’s “State of Wonder.” What could I say? What kind of story is it, science fiction? Corporate treachery vs. scientific deception? Human hubris? The premise is a discovery so unlikely that you find yourself believing it, combined with an adventure so implausible that it has to be real. Yet it’s all nothing more than a figment — an elaborate figment — of Patchett’s hyperactive imagination! (Patchett and the following authors are all American originals.)

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Vote Robin Hood

Hmmm . . . I was going to say, “No comment” . . . Seriously folks, Robin Hood’s not running this year . . . But, if the winner-take-all economy continues . . . and rich patriots continue to accumulate all the money . . . and stash their wealth in the Cayman Islands and Swiss bank accounts . . . Well, Robin Hood might begin to seem like a good idea. 

Robin Hood and Maid Marian (poster, ca. 1880)

ROBIN HOOD AND MAID MARIAN (poster, ca. 1880) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robin Hood is the English folk hero who fascinates the creative imagination. His popularity never wanes. Let’s see, at least eight films, according to Wikipedia. Also, some television shows on BBC, at least one music album, and two computer games.

Robin Hood. Hold that thought. It’s something to stash away for some future election . . . if they still allow elections in the future.

— John Hayden

Anne Tyler’s Excellent Paragraph(s)

ANNE TYLER

I know, I know. I’ve bogged down in two treacherous subjects. Politics (boring) and economics (more so).  This political-economic obsession can only lead to dystopia, which is a particularly virulent strain of paranoia. Dystopia-paranoia flu is spreading quickly. Scientists worry about a pandemic.

There’s no known cure, but a good novel about human beings and their foibles couldn’t hurt. (You might also try a bowl of chicken soup.) If it’s foibles you want, Anne Tyler is the leading specialist. As Exhibit A, I submit the following paragraph from her latest book, The Beginner’s Goodbye.

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