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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist, Dr Annick Swenson is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever: the ability to beat your dreaded biological clock and choose to have babies at any age. Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery and she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, Vogel enterprise. Barbara and Jackie Bovender are the gatekeepers at a town called Manaus, to keep Vogel’s employees from gaining access to Dr. Swenson. Anders Eckman, a mild mannered lab researcher with three sons, is sent to the Amazon to investigate what Dr. Swenson is up to. A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns.

Mr Fox, the CEO of Vogel, whose patience is fast running out decided to send his mistress Marina Singh, Ander’s colleague and once a student of the strict Dr. Swenson to find out about Ander’s death. Marina is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Ander’s wife, Karen, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy pains of Minnesota and retraces her friend’s steps into the heart of the South American darkness. Marina, with her own childhood haunt and marriage failure, is determined to track down Dr Swenson and uncover the truth about Eckman’s death. Soon, Marina experienced more than she bargained for and is embroiled in a thick of things than she would have like to.

It has been 9 years since Patchett published Bel Canto and I wonder if she has moved on since then. State of Wonder was shortlisted in the Orange Prize 2012. The book came through too late so I didn’t read it before the winner announcement.

I thought Patchett had done a good job building a mystery around Eckman’s death and gave us enough background of the characters’ emotions and motivation that drew me into the story at the earliest. It made me invest in Marina’s plight. Marina was a gynaecologist and Dr. Swenson’s student before she became a pharmacist. The change of career and studies happened after Marina committed a childbirth mishap one day.

I am also keen to find out what happens when Marina penetrates the Amazon jungle to find Dr. Swenson. I admire Patchett for her fluidity in her writing, she can really write! (I am not sure if you notice that the writings in Patchett two novels that I have read so far occupied the entire page. There is hardly any white space in the pages and hardly any paragraphs breaks.)

It paints a very atmospheric picture of the Amazon jungle and the ways of the Lakashi tribes that Dr. Swenson based her research on. I love the scientific discussion around the research and the men and women who are committed to pursue a cure for a common disease. Patchett had done a good job researching in this aspect. There were many memorable scenes in State of Wonder that I could remember than Bel Canto, for example the struggle with an Anaconda, childbirth and Dr Swenson’s insistence on surgery without the necessary equipment and sterile tools etc. There were many surprising twists in the stories, I like the scientific ones but reject the ludicrous ones (I’ll come to that later). The character Dr. Swenson comes alive as a powerful and strong woman that would do anything in the name of science. The bond between the local boy Easter with Marina and Dr. Swenson was something special. There were a lot to chew in the book and it delivers both horrifying surprises and heart warming stories at once.

I must say I enjoy State of Wonder a lot more than Bel Canto….. but not quite, because towards the last 30 pages, a plot twist ruin it.

I read Bel Canto 2 years ago and this is what I have to say about the book:

I must say only the most incorrigible dreamer will get sucked into such a dramatised event development in a hostage situation. I expect retaliation, torture and threats, tension; instead Patchett spun a cheesy, romanticised turn of events of a supposingly incarcerated ennui. 

State of Wonder is less dreamy but nonetheless cheesy, it gave me a Hollywood feel of happy ending. You know one of those movies that had to end happily therefore a predictable, a sort of Lazarus raise from death and there is a scene when the hero or the star of the movie rise up from the ashes and came up from the ruins alive? That’s how I feel about the ending and it makes me cringed. The ending lack realism, it has the Elle, GQ, Vogue, Gourmet magazines story article feel to it (which the last time I read these, I was in my early 20’s) which are in actual magazines that Patchett wrote for.

If you fancy a walk in the jungle, an encounter with an Amazonian tribe and you don’t feel you should take the risk of getting Malaria and feeling all sweaty and hot under the scorching sun, read this book. I have been harsh at the last point. I enjoy most of the stories prior to the horrible all-perfect ending.


Reading this for the Orange Prize shortlist 2012.

Hardback. Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2011; Length: 353 pages; Setting: Amazon, Brazil. Source: Reading Library. Finished reading on: 14 June 2012.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


26 thoughts on “State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

  1. I agree with you about the walking through the Amazon, feeling all hot and sweaty, combatting the mosquitoes even if it’s from one’s own living room. But, I didn’t think it was a happy ending. I was so sad for Easter being left with his tribe, away from those he loved and knew. I can only hope he’ll find his way back to Dr. Swenson. I think that boy was my favorite character of all, and that’s why I was so upset about his unhappy ending. I see what you mean about everyone else’s, though, now that I think about it…

    Posted by Bellezza | June 16, 2012, 1:25 am
  2. Good review, Jov, I enjoyed reading your thoughts which only added to my desire to read the book one day. Sounds like I will have to watch out for that ending but other than that it seems fine. And I might even feel at home, that with the “hot and sweaty” part – I’m feeling like that every day in this lovely part of the world. 🙂

    Posted by Delia (Postcards from Asia) | June 16, 2012, 8:39 am
    • Delia,
      I practically grew up all hot and sweaty all my life! So when I hardly do so here, it’s a welcome change. Thank goodness there are many air-conditioned places in Thailand and Malaysia so really I don’t mind going back there at all! 😀

      Look forward to hear what you think about this book.

      Posted by JoV | June 16, 2012, 9:06 am
  3. this book has been on my tbr as a part of the Orange prize shortlist too, but I’m a bit apprehensive, I’m not really comfortable with books that don’t have regular paragraph breaks. apart from that it sounds like a fascinating mystery.
    Thanks for the review JoV, do visit!

    Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal | June 16, 2012, 11:53 am
    • Amrit,
      I look forward to hear what you think about it. For some reason I try to subscribe to your blog’s new feed and google reader doesn’t return any post. I’ll try again.

      Posted by JoV | June 17, 2012, 7:11 am
  4. I abandoned this one so I’m quite pleased you didn’t come away from this one raving about how amazing it was.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | June 16, 2012, 12:59 pm
  5. I was disappointed with this one, although I did like the anaconda scene! :–)

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | June 16, 2012, 1:51 pm
    • Jill,
      I bet you would! Anaconda, how predictable is it? 🙂 I would say Bel Canto was disappointing, this one is almost disappointing. Not sure if I’ll read Patchett novels anymore…

      Posted by JoV | June 17, 2012, 7:13 am
  6. Nice review – I was tempted to read this book because of the scientific aspects but after reading a bit about it, decided not to. The ending sounds dreadful from what you write – such a pity. (A good novel with science in it, by the way, is Intuition by Allegra Goodman – but very different from this one, I think).

    Posted by Maxine | June 16, 2012, 3:51 pm
    • Maxine,
      I thought the scientific part of it was nicely done. I haven’t heard of Allegra Goodman, but Ian McEwan is quite good in writing stories with scientific argument in it, so I’ll be reading Solar one day.

      Posted by JoV | June 17, 2012, 7:14 am
  7. I read most of the shortlist before the winner was announced but like you, didn’t have time to get to this one. I still will read it though, mainly because I love to armchair travel and it being set in the jungle is enough for me!

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | June 16, 2012, 6:03 pm
  8. Yeah, the ending of this book is what made me decide that Ann Patchett is not for me. Her writing’s very nice, and at times I think it’s beautiful, and I enjoyed State of Wonder miles more than I expected to; BUT I just felt like the ending of the book failed to bring everything together.

    (That said, SPOILERS I was pleased Anders was alive. It makes me way sad when families lose a member in books.)

    Posted by Jenny | June 17, 2012, 12:38 am
    • Jenny,
      lol… in a strange way I’m pleased that Anders is alive but it’s quite bizarre how it played out. After 2 books in a row, I basically decided Ann Patchett is definitely not for me, although I’m curious about her novel Run though which people seems to rave about it. What do you think about Run?

      SPOILERS: I was happy Marina doesn’t go looking for Mr Fox at the end!

      Posted by JoV | June 17, 2012, 7:19 am
  9. I really enjoyed Bel Canto and have not read State of Wonder yet. I’ve heard good things though so it is lingering in my mind even though it isn’t officially on my TBR list yet

    Posted by Helen | June 17, 2012, 1:41 am
  10. I did not like Bel Canto. It was a DNF for me. That is why I haven’t wanted to pick this one up and I probably won’t since that plot twist ruined it for you.

    Posted by Ti | June 18, 2012, 7:39 pm
  11. Got this one but not got to it yet brought it when times had it cheap in smiths a couple of weeks ago ,I enjoyed a waugh book set partly in the amazon ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | June 20, 2012, 9:40 pm
  12. I liked this a lot too Jo – great writing and lots of interesting themes. I liked Ann Patchett’s use of a lot of dialogue and agree she brought the intense atmosphere of the jungle to life. I also agree with you on the ending, it was my least favourite part of an otherwise really good book 0:)

    Posted by Tracey | June 29, 2012, 8:11 pm


  1. Pingback: It’s a wrap! June 2012 « JoV's Book Pyramid - July 5, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Ten White Geese
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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