State of Wonder

By Ann Patchett

Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Brazil by the pharmaceutical company she works for, to track down the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, who is working in the Amazon jungle on a very promising fertility drug. Marina is also in search of information about the death of her former colleague and research partner Anders Eckman.

Once in contact with Swenson, Marina travels with her into the jungle on a pontoon driven by a young deaf boy named Easter. Marina’s fear and discomfort are palpable, and when the end of the day brings a bombardment of insects, Patchett’s description is so vivid that we almost feel them raining down on us: “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.” And as it gets darker Marina becomes even more uneasy because she cannot see the jungle anymore: “She felt the plant life pressing against the edges of the water, straining towards them, every root and tendril reaching.” We have complete empathy for her feelings of vulnerability and oppression.

State of Wonder is filled with such rich descriptions that create a very strong sense of place. It is a beautifully written book; the language is so detailed and vivid that we can almost hear the birds and touch the trees and smell the air after the rain. We are there in the jungle with Marina and her colleagues. Patchett’s creation of this world was the greatest strength of this book.

Another strong component is the development of Marina’s character as she confronts some of her long-held fears in this alien landscape; we see her strength and determination in going to the jungle on behalf of her friend; and we delight in her warm, wordless relationship with Easter. But in general, I felt that the character development was lacking. We do get to know Marina and to some degree, Swenson, and we learn to love her young companion, Easter, but there are many secondary characters that seem to exist merely to move the plot along.

I was enthralled with this book almost to the end. Patchett creates a spellbinding world and forces us to confront questions surrounding drug research, exploitation of natives, sacrifice, love, and betrayal. It is an intense read, demanding much contemplation.

But then, the ending. This was very, very disappointing. It was unexpected and anticlimactic, and felt rushed and out of character. In a way, it spoiled the earlier part of the book that had been so enjoyable. At the same time, the language is so vibrant, the jungle setting is portrayed so vividly, and there is so much to think about, that it might almost be enough to offset the ending. Almost.


  1. I also found that the ending affected how I felt about the book, but for different reasons. I don't require happy endings, but there is something about Patchett's endings that leave me disturbed. I reread most books, but despite her beautiful writing, I doubt I'll reread either of the Patchett books I've read so far (this and Bel Canto). But I have a feeling I'll still read her next book, though with some trepidation.

  2. I love her writing but I agree that I probably won't reread her books either, and I often do reread books I like. The one exception might be Run. Did you read that one? Try it and let me know what you think.