Thursday, September 08, 2011

'State of Wonder' by Ann Patchett

Fiction, Harper Collins, 2011
ARE (Advance Reader's Edition), 349 p.
Source: Publisher/ Harper Collins
From the publisher's website:
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past.

Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, and a neighboring tribe of cannibals, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side.
Two-word review: Utterly compelling!

I really enjoyed Bel Canto when I read it a few years ago, so I was looking forward to Ann Patchett’s new book to be published this summer, despite the fact that it is set in the Amazonian jungle, which is a setting that doesn’t usually appeal to me for some reason. Perhaps I just hadn’t found the right book though because once I started reading State of Wonder, I just didn’t want to stop!

The author has done a wonderful job portraying the characters, from the meek Marina, to the intimidating Dr. Swenson, and all the cast of quirky, interesting characters in between. Ultimately this is a story of human connection and relationships, and I enjoyed how the relationship between Marina and Dr. Swenson unraveled. Even though it is outwardly Marina’s story, as we are told it in her voice, both of them must face their pasts, both personally and professionally, and during the course of their time together in the jungle they make important realizations about themselves and each other.

In addition to the beautifully developed characters, Patchett also brought the jungle vividly to life. I felt like I was transported to the Amazon through the pages of the book, although it probably didn’t hurt that I was reading this book during a very hot and very humid Japanese summer! I could completely relate to the oppressive heat of the jungle, just in my case a concrete jungle. And luckily for me no poisonous snakes!

Strictly speaking, State of Wonder is not a thriller, but the narrative pulled me right along and I never knew what turn the story would take next. There were plenty of unexpected events that took place, with some excitement and adventure along the way. Plus a daring rescue, and even some cannibals! I suppose you could call it a literary page-turner.

I was left with many things to think about, like the ethics and morality of scientific discovery, and the consequences of the medical research they were doing. How far should we go in the name of science? Who is responsible? And of course the complex relationships between many of the characters. I think it will be a wonderful choice for book groups as there is certainly plenty here to discuss.

A wonderful, atmospheric novel, and one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

For more information, visit Ann Patchett's website and the Harper Collins website.

Buy State of Wonder at: | | |

New York Times review
The Guardian review

Other thoughts:
the little reader
Reading on a Rainy Day
S. Krishna's Books
Leeswammes' Blog
Bibliophile By the Sea
Everyday I Write the Book
Booking Mama
If I've missed your review, let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print: This book was received free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no compensation. Links in this post to Amazon or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. The characters and the scenery in this book were fabulous! It was my first Ann Patchett book, so I'm looking forward to reading more.

  2. I am glad to keep hearing this is so good. I will probably reading it at some point!

  3. I've read one of Patchett's books in the past in this book has been getting such wonderful praise that I am really looking forward to reading this one soon!

  4. I've heard great things about this book. Just hadn't got around to reading it. I suppose I need to get on it. Thanks for the great review too.

  5. Can't wait to read this one! Sadly my library hold on it expired, so I might have to buy it. Just sayin'!

  6. Good to hear you enjoyed this one Nat. I love Ann Patchett's writing so am looking forward to reading this in the near future.

  7. I keep hearing wonderful things about this novel. Bel Canto is one of my all-time favorite reads, so I'm not sure why I've let the ARC of State of Wonders linger on my shelf. Maybe it's the whole Amazon jungle thing. I'm not terribly interested in that setting, but I think you've convinced me that this will be a great book. Thanks for the review!

  8. I loved this book and am glad to hear that you did too! I did have a tiny issue with the ending but overall it was wonderful.


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