Friday, December 14, 2012

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

The news of Ander Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. 

I really enjoy Ann Patchett's writing, having read Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant. I have really wanted to read State of Wonder for a while, and I wasn't disappointed. Set mainly in the steamy Amazonian jungle, it's the story of Dr. Marina Singh, who is sent to find her former mentor, Annick Swenson, who is working on developing a powerful drug. One of her colleagues, Ander Eckman, was sent down to monitor her progress, and died of a fever. Very little information was given to his grieving wife. So Marina must investigate. Meanwhile, memories of her own childhood resurface.

Ann Patchett really does have a knack for writing. Her writing is kind of passive, but also at the same time, compelling. She uses a lot of interesting description to describe her setting, in this case the tropical rainforest. I think people tend to think of the rainforest as this beautiful, green, paradise, but in State of Wonder, it's quite different. There are dangerous creatures lurking around every corner, and the forest is remote from anything modern. However, it's not portrayed as a living hell, either. Marina does end up enjoying her time (somewhat) in the jungle, and she learns a lot about the native tribe there. The reason the tribe is of interest is that its women can bear children up to seventy years of age or so. The drug Annick is developing is related to that.

Dr. Swenson is a very complex character. At first, she seems kind of heartless: here is the letter she sends when Ander Eckman dies: "Jim Fox, The rain has been torrential here, not unseasonable yet year after year it never ceases to surprise me. It does not change our work except to make it more time-consuming and if we have been slowed we have not been deterred. We move steadily towards the same excellent results. But for now this business is not our primary concern. I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions. I must tell you it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr. Eckman's mission, I assure you we are making strides. I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy. Despite any setbacks, we persevere. -Annick Swenson

What an awful letter to inform someone of a friend's death. And yet, when you meet Annick, she doesn't seem that bad. She's just focused on her work, and it's not like she invited Eckman to come along anyway. He was sent by the company. On the other hand, she hasn't been reporting at all on what she's doing to the company that gives her money. In the end, Annick comes across as a sympathetic character.

I liked State of Wonder more than Bel Canto, and a little bit more than The Magician's Assistant. Whether she's writing about a South American party, a magician's death, or in this case, the jungle, Ann Patchett is an amazing author. I loved State of Wonder.

Read State of Wonder:
  • if you like Ann Patchett
  • if you like books set in the Amazon
  • if you like books that have a lot of science in them
353 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

And my heart bleeds for the people involved in the tragic event in Connecticut today. My thoughts (though not my prayers; I don't pray) are with you.

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