Book review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Next up on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a medical thriller. This was something I read a lot of when I was in high school. Robin Cook was a huge favorite and I read almost everything my library had of his, but I don’t know that I’ve spent too much time in the genre since then. (I tend to do that, read a TON of a certain genre and then never come back again, haha. There are a few favorites that have stuck over the years, though!) Digging through the list, I came up with State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins Publishers, 2011). I read her Bel Canto years ago and was curious to see how I’d feel about her other work, so I clicked on the ‘borrow’ button on the Libby app and was reading an ebook from my library in minutes. (Seriously, the excitement of that will never get old!)

Dr. Anders Eckman is dead. The news has come in a terse letter from the research site deep in the jungles of Brazil where he’d been sent to check up on the work of the woman running the project there. Dr. Marina Singh has reluctantly agreed to make the journey down there, both on her company’s behalf and on Dr. Eckman’s widow’s behalf, to figure out what happened and what the mysterious Dr. Swenson is actually doing in terms of her research. Not exactly an adventurer, Marina is more interested in staying home and figuring out what’s going on between her and her boss, but two lost suitcases later, she finds herself in a world she could never have imagined.

Dr. Swenson, a former medical school instructor of Marina’s, is stern, austere, and entirely dedicated to her projects, to the exclusion of everything around her. The jungle is deeply unforgiving and demands much from anyone who attempts to settle there. Marina will have to dig deep in order to accomplish what she came for, but there are so many things she hadn’t expected…

I don’t know. I love Ann Patchett as a person- if you’re ever in Nashville, she co-owns the cutest little book store in Green Hills, Parnassus Books, and you shouldn’t miss it (although the traffic in that area is HORRIFIC, so be warned). She’s done a lot of great things for the city; Parnassus opened up after the city’s only other first-run bookstore was destroyed by a flood in 2010 (a small Barnes & Noble affiliated with Vanderbilt University has since opened up in the city, near the university itself). But there’s something about her writing style that just doesn’t reach out and grab me. I felt the same way after reading Bel Canto; it made me anxious throughout and the whole reading experience left me unsettled. I know a ton of people absolutely love her books, so this is just my I’m-a-nobody subjective opinion, but I don’t think that her books are necessarily for me.

Her characters always feel at once too close and still too distant, and like their emotions aren’t fully displayed, or that they’re limited to a very small, very flat range of emotions. They don’t feel fully human to me- does that make sense? They almost seem like caricatures. The Bovenders were as boisterous as Marina was flat, as Dr. Swenson was irritated. They’re all ruled by one personality trait, and I found that tiring to read.

Dr. Swenson was about one of my least favorite characters I’ve ever read. She was snappish, emotionless, irritated and impatient with everything Marina said, and every time she appeared on the page, I grew annoyed. To be honest, if it hadn’t been for the challenge (and the fact that this was an ebook, which have limited checkouts for the library), I wouldn’t have finished it, because I was so annoyed with everything about Dr. Swenson. She was so arrogant and unlikable that reading her was difficult. Even later in the book, when she’s more vulnerable, I felt little sympathy for her.

Marina was a little better, but still flat to me. There is a twist at the end that helps the story to finish better than I had expected, although it was still…eh, and there was something alluded to earlier in the book that had the potential to blow up, but the book ended too soon to really know if anything came from it.

And oof. I have a lovely friend who is from Brazil and who has a lot of great stories about her home country. I love hearing them. This book was a bit like an anti-tourism ad for Brazil. Venomous snakes that camouflage in terrifying ways. Anacondas in the water. Insects of every shape and size that dive bomb, bite you with razor-sharp teeth, suck your blood, and inject you with terrifying diseases. Cannibalistic native tribes. I’ll stay home, thanks… (And Dr. Swenson’s discovery, that there’s a tribe whose women can get pregnant into their eighties? THAT sounds like the worst nightmare EVER!!!! Pregnancy and I are not friends…)

I dunno. I always feel like there’s something wrong with *me*, that I’m missing something that so many other people obviously see, when I don’t fall in love with authors that are so very popular. Is this your experience when you can’t quite get what other people love so much? Have you read this and are baffled by how badly I miss the mark here? Do you love Ms. Patchett’s books and have a moment to explain them to me better? I’m open to any help you can offer!

Visit Ann Patchett’s website here.


4 thoughts on “Book review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

  1. I totally understood why you can’t relate to Patchett’s characters. You couldn’t have explained in a better way. Robin Cook is one of my favorite authors in the medical thriller genre. Great review, btw.

    Liked by 1 person

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