State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Published by: Harper
Published on: June 2011
Page Count: 388
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Reading Format: Audiobook rented from my local public library.
Audiobook Published by: Harper Audio
Narrator: Hope Davis
Audiobook Length: 12 hours 25 minutes
Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, and Audiobook
Armchair Audies Category: Literary Fiction
Ann Patchett’s latest novel tells the story of Marina Singh, a pharmacologist in her mid 30s who came to her profession by way of an accident that occurred during her OB/GYN residency. Marina is happily working for Vogel, a pharmaceutical company, when she receives news that her coworker, Dr. Anders Eckman died in the Brazilian rain forest while on a mission to discover the status of the fertility project Dr. Swenson has been developing there for Vogel. Mr. Fox, Marina’s employer and lover, asks Marina to go to the jungle to bring back information about the deceased Dr. Eckman as well as to get check up on Dr. Swenson’s project. What Mr. Fox does not know is that Dr. Swenson the physician who taught Marina everything she knew about obstetrics and gynecology. It is not without trepidation that Marina makes the journey to Dr. Swenson and the Lakashi people. It is an understatement to say that Dr. Swenson intimidates Marina. This trip into the unknown forces Marina to confront all of her ghosts.
Not since The Emperor’s Children have I been as irritated by a reading experience as I was with State of Wonder. Whereas I considered The Emperor’s Children death by character development, State of Wonder was death by whining psychoanalysis. Spending time with Marina continually grated on my nerves. When she wasn’t rehashing the effects of the malaria drug she had to take in order to travel, she was over analyzing herself and others. With each mention of Dr. Swenson’s name came a fresh batch of anxiety. Had the book been half the length, this wouldn’t have had the chance to fester within me the way that it did. I kept hoping that when Marina finally came into contact with Dr. Swenson that the crisis as such would be over. I’d hoped that she would be able to let go of her own issues and focus on the tasks at hand. Not so. Even Dr. Swenson herself commented on how Marina focused on the minute details of unimportant things. On Marina’s first night at Dr. Swenson’s camp, it was so bad that when her thought processes finally slowed down so that she could fall asleep I applauded. Alas, the celebration was short lived. She immediately had a dream. Sigh.
State of Wonder is nominated for an Audie award in the Literary Fiction category. It is for this reason that I finally read the novel and it is for this reason that I finished it. Had I attempted to read this book in print, I very much doubt I would have made it to Marina’s flight to Brazil. For someone as intelligent as Marina, she never seemed to have any confidence in her own abilities. She virtually appointed Dr. Swenson guardianship of her self-worth. This intensified after her last experience as an OB/GYN resident. At the age of 35, Marina very much needed her experience in the jungle to force her to live life instead of beiing afflicted by it.
State of Wonder did start to pick up once Marina got to the camp. She met and bonded with Easter, the 10-year-old deaf boy from another tribe who helped Dr. Swenson. He was a character I could finally embrace. Also, I found Dr. Swenson more tolerable than I had expected her to be given Marina’s extensive inner dialog leading up to her arrival in Manaus. I did find it appropriate that it was the doctors from Michigan who gave me my only chuckle. It was nice to finally be able to experience the world within this novel outside of Marina’s head.
State of Wonder was my first experience with Hope Davis’ narration. While I wish I had an overall better experience, I very much credit her with making it possible for me to finish the book. Although she did use some voice differentiation, she kept the characters distinct mainly through tone and attitude. I didn’t notice this at much at first when Marina and Dr. Eckman’s wife Karen were in conversation, but it was readily apparent once Dr. Swenson arrived on scene. While I wanted to wish the story swiftly to its end many times, her pacing was consistent and appropriate to the story throughout. I hope to one day get a chance to experience her work with a book I enjoy.
There were many times that I actually despised State of Wonder. I wanted out of Marina’s head and I wanted a grown woman to stop calling her peers – not to mention her lover – by their given names. I didn’t want to slap Marina, I just wanted to walk away and be done with her. I do think that my impatience with Marina’s stemmed from being able to see something of myself in her. I am a pleaser as well and have given many other people the keys to my happiness. Seeing what that type of thought process looks like is not pretty, especially when belonging to a professional 35-year-old woman. In the end, I did not hate this book. As I reached the very last disc, I stopped regretting not DNFing the book six discs ago. The story finally meant something to me and I was grateful. It was by no means a resounding “Hooray!”, but State of Wonder did provide a small pay off for my perseverance.