State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.
Harper Perennial, HaperCollins, 2012.
Adult fiction, 353 pages plus extras.
New York Times Bestseller
Best book of the year 2011 from ten different news sources
AR Level: 6.7 (worth 21.0 points)
Dr. Marina Singh has no interest in going to Brazil. She’s quite happy sitting in her small windowless lab running pharmacological tests, and her lab partner Anders Eckman was happy to go into the Amazon as long as he could take some side trips to photograph rare and unusual birds. But Marina’s plain, comfortable world shatters when a letter arrives relating his death. The company wants to know what happened, and so does his widow.
This was a free book from the library that I grabbed after forgetting my bag so I couldn’t read Hidden Figures on my break. It was surprisingly gripping! There are so many points to discuss which are major spoilers, but I’m going to limit the spoilers here as much as possible.
The leveling puts this as a middle school read, but it is clearly intended for adults. I think a mature high school student could read it, but there is quite a bit of adult content – I would definitely not give it to my students.
The author is a white woman, but I felt she did a decent job of addressing Marina’s ethnicity. A major theme of the book dealt with her difficulties as the child of a Scandinavian Minnesotan and an Indian exchange student. Her skin color constantly set her apart in Minnesota, her beloved homeland, but she didn’t feel quite comfortable when visiting India either. She identifies strongly with Anders’ longing for his homeland as expressed in letters to his wife, but others don’t recognize Minnesota as her homeland because she is not white.
Spoiler On p. 236, several scientists and natives go to a trading post in the hope of getting some letters mailed. Marina is wearing a Lakashi dress and there happens to be a party of tourists at the trading post where another group of natives is performing a dance for them. The tourists assume Marina is a native and she ends up in the dance and later posing for pictures with the tourists as they comment about her in the English that is her mother tongue. Marina’s thoughts on this occasion are quite interesting as she has insights into the exploitation of the native people and the falseness of the tourist experience but also is more concerned with getting back to the Lakashi and continuing her work. /End of Spoilers
Additionally, there is also another character who is deaf. I won’t say much more about it (because there are so many spoilers) but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was off about the portrayal of this character. Certainly I liked that the character was shown with above average intelligence, but the methods of communication and the interactions others had with this character were difficult. There were moral decisions which unsettled me and assumptions about this character’s autonomy (from both sides) that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.
Because I have much more experience with deafness than biracial Minnesotans, it’s possible I missed some other aspect of Marina’s portrayal that would be caught in an #ownvoices review. And indigenous tribes of the Amazon is a subject I know almost nothing about. If anyone else reads this book or has any commentary on this issue, please let me know.
There were some interesting perspectives on the role of women, whether childbirth was an essential part of femininity and what role having (or not having) a romantic partner or a profession played. The reaction most characters had to this was constantly shifting in reaction to new ideas and different choices. There is also some commentary on the medical profession, specifically Marina’s choice to leave medicine and turn to pharmacology which is another major element of the novel.
I couldn’t decide if this was literary fiction or suspense, because it had elements of both. Certainly it was a page-turner, but there was a lot of metaphor and the pace was not always brisk. Large portions of the novel were about the main character’s journey coming to peace with her life and herself, yet there was never a moment where some question wasn’t foremost in my mind, and the questions moved from one to another with the smooth deftness of an experienced novelist.
The ending… oh the ending. Certainly there were elements left unresolved, definitely there were twists and turns that were somewhat unbelievable. But I did feel as if we the readers were led on a journey similar to Marina’s. So many things happen and change in such a short period of time, yet each individual step was so reasonable and rational. We find ourselves standing in a clearing in the Amazon panicking “how did my life end up this way” even while we can look back with a clear mind and say “this makes so much sense, this is my life, I chose this.”
I enjoyed this book, but would not necessarily recommend it as diverse reading. I’m not sure how authentic the representation is but am happy that at least mainstream readers are getting a little bit of diversity in their characters.