The book jacket describes State of Wonder as provocative, ambitious, and thrilling. Ambitious it is without question, provocative and thrilling it is at times. This is a good book that misses being a great book in perplexing ways. Ann Patchett is a supremely gifted writer and I wanted so badly for all elements of this novel to reach the heights of the writing she attains, but does not sustain.
State of Wonder is an irresistible read, fulfilling my desire for any piece of fiction: a good story. But it is like watching a terrific movie and catching a glimpse of the camera dangling at the top of the screen, or listening to a skilled actor bungle a regional accent- you wonder why the director and editor allowed such gaffes and flaws to remain, jarring the viewer out of the story.
I struggle to define the theme and purpose of State of Wonder. Is it an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, which exploits vulnerable societies for money and power? This theme runs as an undercurrent throughout the second half of the book, at times bubbling to the surface, but mostly it trickles along just out of earshot.
Is it a romance, in the classical sense? It is rich adventure, complete with an Odyssey-like journey, mythical beasts, enchanted children, knights in shining armour (who drive taxis and pontoon boats instead of powerful steeds), witches, and magic mushrooms. But the energy of the adventure stalls often as its heroine, Marina, searches aimlessly for direction.
Is it a character-driven story, one that allows the reader to see character transformation through a series of defining events? There are critical events a-plenty, but the main character, Marina, remains a passive observer who simply follows orders until the book's final scenes. Her most independent and assertive act results in a moral catastrophe, but Patchett's closing scene implies that Marina made the right choice. I can hear the book club discussion now...
Perhaps Patchett is striving for all of these, but she stretches logic and manipulates circumstance to such an extent I had to suspend disbelief to enjoy the story in its moment. The author fills space with irrelevant characters, such as the Bovenders; implausible relationships, such as Marina's with Mr. Fox; she drags the reader's heels in Manaus and through Marina's Lariam-induced nightmares; she manufactures a super-secret research facility deep in the heart of the Amazonian jungle which appears to be under the sole purview of a renegade researcher, but is surprisingly and inexplicably populated with a handful of lucid, relatively stable scientists engaged in morally-suspect experimentation.
There were many illogical details that gnawed at me like a persistent mosquito: that in decades past Dr. Swenson travelled frequently from Johns Hopkins on a Thursday evening to spend a long weekend at the research facility deep in the Brazilian rainforest, returning in time to teach her Monday morning class - a trip that even today requires multiple flights and a trek down the Amazon; that Marina would be foolish enough to pack vital gear in her checked bags, like a hapless tourist; that a pharmaceutical company would have limitless, unquestioning resources to support a team of researchers without a clue of who was doing what, where, and how; that the researchers would have regular access to boats traveling to Manaus (such that Dr. Swenson maintains a box at the Manaus opera), but couldn't get Anders out of the camp at the first sign of serious illness; that Dr. Swenson, an exacting woman who does not suffer fools, would put her trust, possessions, and her "secret" location in the hands of idiotic opportunists.
Several reviews compare State of Wonder to Joseph Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness. Without a doubt, Patchett brings vivid, pulsing, claustrophobic, seething, and frightening life to the jungle. It becomes the narrative's most compelling character.
But the novel that came to my mind was John le Carre's tremendous The Constant Gardener. Here is a book that succeeds in where State of Wonder does not: it is at once a riveting thriller, a scathing revelation of the morally-corrupt pharmaceutical industry, an adventure story set in the challenging terrain of eastern Africa, and a love story with characters that you ache to know and understand. Le Carre is able to weave together multiple themes while telling a powerful, relevant story. Patchett offers elements of greatness, but doesn't succeed in connecting plausibility to wonder.