Years ago, a friend of mine recommended I read Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto". I never really took her seriously and blew it off for whatever I was into at the time. When Patchett then released "State of Wonder" in 2011, and it got better than average reviews (some complained of it being a little slow in the middle), I decided it was time to give her a try. And if it WAS slow in the middle, audio would get me through it.
I went into it knowing very little, only that it had to do with an eccentric scientist having "gone rogue" in the Amazon. Hmmm, whispers of "Heart of Darkness" or "Apolcalypse Now". That was all I really needed to know.
Synopsis: Dr. Marina Singh is a middle-aged research scientist who works for a pharmaceutical company that is financially supporting a cutting edge drug development project in the Amazon jungle. Marina's old mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, has been working on this project for years, but is completely unreachable, having disappeared under the radar and apparently gone native. Marina's colleague was sent down recently to determine the project's status but died of an unidentified fever. Marina has now been asked to travel to this foreign land, locate the rogue doctor in the wild, determine when the project will be complete (thus possibly making millions for her company) and bring back the effects of her deceased colleague. Marina couldn't be more horrified at the prospect.
Once Marina arrives, however, she is drawn into a land that could just as well have been a different plant. She encounters vigilant hippies whose sole purpose is to protect the whereabouts of Dr. Swenson, a deaf boy whom she wants to adopt as her own, man-eating snakes, a group of natives that love to do her hair, and poison arrow-wielding cannibals. She also finds her mentor to be a force of nature, demanding and unyielding, sacrificing her life and career for the sake of a drug that could change the world.
Strangely, in the Amazon, Marina begins to make peace with the phantoms that have haunted her for years. In fact, she believes that she may never be the same again.
My thoughts: Chalk it up to a phenomenal audio production, or Patchett's beautiful writing, or the subject matter, but this book blew me away. I was never bored, but really the opposite. I was mesmerized.
I was completely fascinated with everything about this tribe in the Amazon...their unique biology (won't say any more), the magical vegetation, and their customs. I felt like I was right in there with Marina, battling the insects and the snakes.
The characters in the story were as equally as fascinating. I wouldn't go so far as to say I loved them. They were quirky and unique, Patchett unapologetic in creating their frailties. Dr. Swenson was the dominant personality throughout, however, both when she is absent and present. You have heard she is crazy, and when you meet her you know she is a few cards short of a deck, but only until you see the level of her dedication to the cause do you stand back (way back) and admire her begrudgingly. Sort of like one of my old bosses.
Some of the scenes bordered on surreal! Whether it be assisting in a native birth up in a tree hut, or a huge snake (python? boa constrictor? I don't remember, but something bad) almost killing a boy, or a few other things that shall remain unspoiled, I just kept shaking my head and wondering "what the hell"???
There has been some controversy over the ending Patchett chose for us. When I was discussing it with Heather, I was really foggy on the whole thing. (I must have been anticipating my next audio "11/22/63"). It did not end the way I expected or wanted, and honestly it felt a little too tidy for me. But I won't let it diminish the overall wonder I felt at completion.
A few words about the audio production: Our narrator for "State of Wonder" was Hope Davis, who is best known for her acting work in the movies. She was truly everything you would want in a narrator. Her pace was perfect, she displayed a wide range of accents, sexes and ages, and was extremely pleasant to listen to. Apparently everyone else thought so too, because the audio book has garnered a list of awards and a spot on the year-end best of lists.
4.5 out of 5 stars