Thoughts on Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

State of Wonder begins as a staid novel about a highly educated, emotionally barren woman who accidentally sliced a baby’s face while it was still in utereo. Marina travels to the jungle to unearth information about a friend’s death, and in doing so, reunites with a fiercely competent professor from her medical school days. The professor is developing a fertility drug. As she maneuvers through life in the Amazon, Marina becomes less formal, warmer, more maternal: she develops a tan and chops a snake’s head off as it’s squeezing the life out of someone.

The book crescendos with an encounter with cannibals, a big plot twist, a bout of “Wait, what? Why?” sex, and the strong implication that Marina is pregnant.

The problem lies in the central character: she is Reese Witherspoon in This or That Romantic Comedy. Marina is in a dull relationship. She’s neurotic–this we know because she wakes up screaming approx. 30 times, and characters keep pointing it out, and you want to say, “Yes, yes, you’re behind on this,”–and except for the fact that she cut a fetus’s face half-off, she’s not someone you’d be terribly interested in getting to know. She’s beige. By the time she slices up a live anaconda more than halfway through the novel, you want to say, “Marina, I didn’t know you had it in you! And I’m not sure I care that you have it in you, at this point.”

Given the ending, the solution to the beige is adorable young children, random coitus, and pregnancy. If What to Expect when You’re Expecting is some kind of guide to the jungle, then I throw my hands up.

It is a well-written novel: I read it in two days, and plowed through the last 200 pages in one evening, and read it on the stationary bike at the gym without being distracted by the televisions blasting in front of me. The characters that buffer Marina from the wilderness are fascinating, and the written treatment of the jungle inhabitants doesn’t read as racial/ethnic voyeurism.

What the Experts Said

“The book finally hits its jungle stride with long-toed birds, water foliage as thick as lettuce and, beneath its cover, an anaconda worse than anything that ever made Marina wake up screaming. There are tourists who embarrassingly mistake Marina for a very tall tribeswoman. And there is the ghostly, druggy vision of just how the women of the Lakashi tribe turn themselves into such medical miracles. Marina will discover that it is not just a love of knowledge but also a taste of tree bark that has kept the 73-year-old Swenson [the professor] bound to her research for so many years. Not until Marina comes face to face with Swenson does this unexpectedly meandering novel find its focus.”

– Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Patchett’s greatest strength, her imagination, ultimately gives shape to a host of platitudes about the primitive pleasures and dangers that lie out there in the jungle…Part scientific thriller, part engaging personal odyssey, “State of Wonder” is a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises.”

– Laura Ciolkowski, The Chicago Tribune

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