Book Review: State of Wonder, by Ann PatchettPosted: June 28, 2011
Now doing book reviews is risky, because it implies to the world that I have copious amounts of leisure time, which I assure you, I do not. But one of Das Baby’s special traits is that he still has to eat every three hours, but he also sleeps though the night, leading to something we call Schlaffessen, or sleep eating. So while I sit there holding a bottle (more later on why he has to take breast milk from a bottle) in his mouth at 3 am, I like to read. Still, know that I write this review at personal risk because Herr Husband may use it against me next time I claim I don’t have time to shower.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite books, and it was my favorite book to teach: densely packed with philosophy, teeming with the kind of evocative prose that makes an English teacher go all weak in the knees, and as ambiguous as life itself. The perfect book for young people who are obsessively charting their place in the world. Yes, it’s racist, but 1) Everybody’s a little racist 2) It was written during a racist time (all times being racist, but that’s another story) and 3) Maybe it’s social criticism.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (353 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99) both mirrors and inverts Conrad’s slim masterpiece, inserting women in both the Kurtz and Marlow roles, and centering around a moral core that is both simpler and more life affirming.
Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher whose simple and structured life is upended by a letter from deep in the Brazilian rainforest reporting the death of her lab partner, Anders. Her boss (also her lover, though their attachment and attraction are rather hazy) wants her to go to Brazil to track down the information that Anders sought on the development of a drug that would indefinitely extend female fertility. Anders’s wife wants her to find out the truth about his death. And so Marina, unnervingly passive for much of the novel, finds herself swept along by the currents of others’ desires, eventually traveling upriver through the rainforest to see firsthand the research of Annick Swenson, who functions as a Kurtz-like figure in her uncomfortable moral certainty.
Once at Swenson’s station, Marina finds herself startlingly well-adapted to the life of the fictional Lakashi people. Patchett’s dehumanizing descriptions of these natives echo Conrad’s–the women’s compulsion to groom one another is likened to that of monkeys–and both uphold and critique these attitudes. “‘I tamed them,’ [Dr. Swenson says of the Lakashi], taking not the least discomfort in the word”. Marina, with an Indian father and white American mother, blends in with the Lakashi–who like Conrad’s natives don’t enjoy the benefit of being named for the sake of individualization. Only Marina’s height marks her as different, causing one tourist to remark, “Take my picture with this one…she’s twice the size of the rest of them”. The cringeworthyness of the scene is only slightly diminished by its ham-handed directness.
Patchett’s prose delights, particularly when she’s creating a sense of place. The jungle seethes, and I’ve never before read such brilliant writing about insects: “At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find”.
But at times the plot shows too much of its undercarriage, relying on convenience and coincidence rather than smoothing down its edges. Annick and Marina’s intertwined past looms too large and too conveniently over the novel. And Patchett is obvious with leitmotif. Blindness and deafness and disabling anomalies abound in the story, and come to feel overdone in showing us how unaware we often are of each other’s motives and feelings. Marina’s lost luggage and cell phones similarly heighten this sense of disconnect.
And yet at its center, State of Wonder, the very title of which echoes Conrad’s novel in its cadence, offers us Wonder rather than Darkness. The characters are achingly human in a way that highlights their (and all of our) yearning to be good. For the novel has heart in the traditional sense, and while some human connections are lost, others are forged, uneasily upending Conrad’s message that “we live as we dream…alone.” For much of the novel, Marina is haunted by malaria-drug induced dreams of isolation and disconnection, but by the novel’s end, she has come to see the possibility for connection, love, and comfort. It is this possibility that lies at the very heart of Patchett’s skillfully rendered novel, making it a worthy read.
So I give it four out of five strollers. Worth taking for a spin.