22. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

29 Jul

Ann Patchett is one of those serious literary writers who has kind of a woman-y reputation (maybe just because she’s a woman and female writers are ghettoized) that puts me off. I have her in the Alice Munro and Jane Smiley camp, despite that possibly being totally unfair and me having never read any Alice Munro. And I even liked Moo by Jane Smiley…I like all dramas set as small colleges in the David Lodge school, usually.

Rambling way to say that I would never have picked State of Wonder up, but had to read it for work and really enjoyed it. Ann Patchett is a great novelist in that classic, capacious, well-drawn, beautifully expressed, this-is-a-great-story way. I don’t know of many harder things in the world than keeping a narrative in the air this well over 500 pages.

The basic story is about a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, Marina Singh, who is dispatched to the Amazon to investigate a colleague’s death and reign in a rogue scientist, Professor Annick Swenson, at work on a groundbreaking new fertility drug. Dr. Swenson is Marina’s former professor, one of those hard-assed, work-machine-types who students worship. She’s set up to be hated, but once Marina gets down there, things become much more complicated.

One of the things I found most exciting about the book was the splishy-sploshy boundary-fucking. People swimming or dreaming or with fevers or dealing with sweat and the smiting heat and murky water; people who lose their luggage; people who are about to give birth or about to be born. There are two utterly terrifying and brilliantly done ceasarian sections where you feel the envelope of unwilling flesh, the life inside…

It’s a strange book, though. Maybe I haven’t thought about it enough. Some of the best set pieces are surrounding conception, birth, fertility; but the main characters are all childless. The only real child in the book is a deaf orphan named Easter who is, to my eye, a bit too amazing and universally loveable. Not very much of a real child. And the only close relationship was the marriage of the scientist whose death set the whole thing in motion…. And that we see through his passionate, nearly daily letters to his wife, the mother of his three children. Which also struck me as a bit of a literary device and not a reflection of what any married person with three kids actually acts like.

The character-development arc seemed to be a coming-into-her-own, or getting-over-fears for Marina, which left me a little flat. I immensely enjoyed it the whole way through, but it might have fallen just on the wrong side of the line between great entertainment and great literature.

3 Responses to “22. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett”

  1. shadowoperator March 5, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    I also did a post on “State of Wonder,” and though I felt a bit warmer towards it than I think you ended by feeling, I agree that there is something in the “these are great (women) writers” sense that creeps out and affects Patchett’s work (though I hasten to add that this is the only book I’ve read by her, and so maybe I’m not a good judge). I guess we just have to hope that there will come a time when “these are women’s issues” will come to be “these are life issues, and concern everyone.” For an antidote, there’s another great book to read, “Solar,” by Ian McEwan (or am I getting his name confused with the actor?), in which a man’s life is front and center, and the writer more or less parodies the supposed male concerns which drive “all” men. I say it’s a parody because it’s too pricelessly funny at the character’s expense to be a sincere tribute to the male perspective.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 8, 2015 at 3:06 am #

      I, who consider myself a feminist, probably shouldn’t have even said that about her being off-putting as a woman-y writer. I love women’s concerns in literature. At the same time as it’s what you say and I’m resentful when certain issues (like in this case reproduction) are considered to be just for women. And hmmmmm….. Solar is funny? I have not found Ian McEwan to have a sense of humor in the past. Maybe I’ll try it.

      • shadowoperator March 8, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

        Yes, “Solar” is funny, though you may feel I have a really twisted sense of humor when you read it. But the main character is an unliberated man, and McEwan gets a lot of mileage out of poking fun at him. There’s a really funny scene in the Arctic where he thinks his cock has frozen and fallen off in his sock, and he deserves such punishments so richly that you can’t wait for something else bad to happen to him. Then, there’s a sense of possible redemption at the end, but I’m not going to go further into that, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. The character is one of the great Punches (of the Punch and Judy sort of Punch) of all time, and it’s really fun to watch him get socked.

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