Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

So, State of Wonder.

The story was engaging and there were definitely some very nice twists at the end. The writing was beautiful and the characterization was great. And the Amazon setting itself, is worth your time. But despite all of that, the book left me in a state of, well... what’s the opposite of wonder?

I guess I can file my reaction under ‘personal reading preferences unfulfilled.’ You see, I generally like my fiction to be believable and realistic. I’m not a big sci-fi or fantasy reader, for example. If you’re practiced in the art of suspending disbelief for the length of a book, you’ll love this one. If you’re like me, you’ll probably enjoy it, but come away saying, “meh…”

Maybe I was spoiled by reading David Grann’s The Lost City of Z   last year. In that  book you get the real Amazon- the one that chews you up and spits you out (if you’re lucky), the one that inspired the name “The Green Hell.” Patchett’s take on the Amazon is the romanticized rainforest of modern fairy tales, where an isolated patch of yellow-barked, pink-flowering trees that hold cures for the world’s greatest diseases remains completely secret just a few hours from a metropolis of 2 million people, and even closer to warring tribes that would have discovered and destroyed them hundreds of years ago.

But that’s not all. What are the chances, say, that a pharmaceutical company would send a hapless cholesterol researcher, alone, to the middle of the Amazon jungle to find a missing scientist also employed by the firm? Okay, let’s give this one to Patchett. Let’s say that might really happen. Then what are the chances that they send another  hapless cholesterol researcher, alone, to the middle of the Amazon jungle to find the missing scientist after the first cholesterol researcher died and/or went missing? You see where I’m going. There are other plot elements that bothered me, but while they stretched the realm of incredible coincidences, they were  at least believable.

But there were other issues, too. In a sideplot, the main character begins taking Lariam, a Malaria preventative with neuropsychiatric side effects. It raises the horrible specter of nightmares she had as a child, while visiting her father in India (these nightmares were also caused by the drug, though she didn’t know it at the time). This same recurring nightmare, is retold time and time again- ad nauseum- as she prepares and sets off for Brazil. The kicker? She stops taking the Lariam, and the whole thing becomes inconsequential to the story. Grrr.

I don’t know. I never give stars or numeric scores in my reviews- you’re either intrigued by what I say, or you’re not. I guess if I was asked about this book, I’d say that I liked it. I’d even recommend it- but no more strongly than I’d recommend John Grisham’s The Testament,  which explores the Pantanal of southwestern Brazil, and certainly no more strongly than I’d recommend The Lost City of Z.  Now that  is a book about the Amazon that will leave you in a state of wonder.

Anyone else read State of Wonder ? Do you disagree? Should I have started with Belle Canto  instead?


  1. Bel Canto is definitely her best book.

    1. That's what I've heard. I'll definitely check it out.

  2. "State of Wonder" was a moving, emotional, heart wrenching and awe inspiring story. I think I even turned the pages more slowly as I tried to absorb the words and the images of the Amazon jungle that Patchett brings forth in this wonderful novel.

    "In a matter of minutes the nameless river narrowed and the green dropped behind them like a curtain and the Negro was lost. Marina had thought that the important line that was crossed was between the dock and the boat, the land and the water. She had thought the water was the line where civilization fell away. But as they glided between the two thick walls of breathing vegetation she realized she was in another world entirely, and that she would see civilization drop away again and again before they reached their final destination.

  3. Ann Patchett's State of wonder is aptly named, since it fairly accurately describes my mood the entire time I was reading this novel. As an accomplished author, Patchett is expected to deliver high quality books, and she certainly did that here.