Harper Perennial, 2011
I finally dusted State of Wonder off my shelf because I picked it for book club. I really liked Bel Canto and thought the same sort of novel would make for a good discussion and for a non-annoying read. After finishing SoW, I still prefer Bel Canto, and I think it’s because the form of the novel felt unsatisfying to me.
First of all, all I really knew about the book going in was that it was a sort of female version of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. State of Wonder is much longer, with lots of descriptions of every step before the journey up the river into the rainforest. Conrad’s story is much, much leaner. Both stories have a sort of a cipher of a narrator (or I may just not remember much about the protagonist of the book I read last as a teenager). Marina Singh is an MD turned pharmacologist working in Minnesota for a pharmaceutical company funding the fertility drug research of Dr. Swenson, one of the ob/gyns who trained her over a decade before the story takes place. Marina’s officemate Dr. Eckman is sent to the Amazon to check up on Dr. Swenson, and after word arrives that he’s died, Marina travels to find out what happened to him. After a long and strange interlude in the city of Manaus, Marina leaves for the lab and camp in the jungle, and that’s my favorite third of the book. Everything else leads up to the journey.
I ultimately felt unsatisfied because the book felt like a retake of Orpheus and Eurydice with the woman doing the rescuing. It doesn’t feel like a complete tale though the endings are different. My favorite version of Orpheus and Eurydice is a play, Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, which is a version of the myth from Eurydice’s perspective. It was stranger and more emotional somehow. Marina is a very closed-off person, and even throwing in her relationship with a young deaf boy in the jungle doesn’t humanize her much, and it feels like a bit of an old trick a la the movie Aliens.
Patchett writes beautifully, but ultimately I was not that interested in long descriptions of the jungle or the odd city of Manaus and it’s gorgeous opera-house. And I didn’t find the story of what was going on with Dr. Swenson’s research that enthralling because the characters were so closed-off. You know when you think a book is more focused on an idea than on a story? That’s this book.