For years Vogel Pharmaceuticals has been funding a project in the Amazon. Led by the famous Dr. Annick Swenson, the project is supposed to result in some miracle drug that has been years in the making. At least that's what the company hopes will come of it. But Swenson is extremely secretive to the point of being downright illusive. The only solution is for the company to send an emissary to speak with Swenson in person and report back on her progress. When they receive word that Anders Eckman has died, Vogel becomes desperate. This time, they send Dr. Marina Singh, a former student of Swenson's. What Marina discovers though is nothing short of amazing.
This is my first time delving into Ann Patchett's work. As a bookseller in the heyday of Bel Canto I'm familiar with Patchett as an author but I'd never given myself the chance to read her work before now. When I started State of Wonder I really wasn't sure what to expect and had a bit of trouble really getting into the story. Once Marina began to develop as a character, I was completely drawn in to the tale.
As the story progressed, I started to think that State of Wonder was something of a modern (and easier to read in my opinion) take on Heart of Darkness. Other than superficial comparisons that I'll leave to others to draw on their own, I can't attest to the deeper thematic comparisons between the two -- I was never a fan of Conrad's work and read it in an English course focused on colonization in literature rather than Heart as a whole. I also don't want to spoil the book in any way, but Heart of Darkness was definitely on my mind while reading.
Patchett is a great literary talent and her writing has been praised by readers and fellow writers for years. It was no surprise to me then that State of Wonder was well plotted and expertly written. What I really enjoyed, though, were the setting and the anthropological components of the book.
The furthest reaches of the Amazon and the extreme discomfort experienced by Marina when she arrives there were so real, I could almost feel the sweat beading up on my own neck as I read. At one point, Swenson describes the very real possibility of snakes in unexpected places and I physically cringed. It was just one of many instances, but the first that comes to mind. I get chills thinking about it.
Patchett's attention to detail is impecable. I was an anthropology minor in college and loved the courses. Ethnography, ethnobotany, and medical anthropology were of great interest to me and had I not had my heart set on something else (and had I not been a fairly poor science student), it would have taken little to convince me to continue in that line of study. This element is by no means the most important in the book, but was the reason for my initial interest in the story and I felt Patchett used them well as a bit of a building block for the book as a whole.
Overall, State of Wonder turned out to be a fascinating and great introduction to Patchett's work one that I would gladly hand sell were I still a bookseller today.
Visit TLC Book Tours for the rest of the stops on the State of Wonder blog tour and for your viewing pleasure, check out Ann's interview with Stephen Colbert from earlier this year.