Initial thoughts on Ann Patchett's State of Wonder

I started State of Wonder last night. Today I needed to finish a lot of work. Some got done. A lot didn’t. The novel held me: by the power of its story, by the hypnosis of trying to figure out just who Dr. Swenson was and is, by the dilemmas each character faces, by the writing, by the agony of jungle life. The writing isn’t showy, exactly, but it’s good, strange and normal at the same time, with very average seeming sentences like these: “Marina shrugged. It was a peculiar kind of therapy, lying flat out with the child you had only now realized you wanted while being asked if you had wanted a child.” The wants and desires of the second sentence wrap in on each other, implying paradox in a book full of paradoxes and choices just on the verge of being transcended. A paragraph below there’s this: “That was Dr. Rapp’s great lesson in the Amazon, in science: Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.”

Yes: Marina overlooks everything and finds everything. Not many characters in novels do. Not many people do. Not many characters or people articulate trade-offs like the ones in State of Wonder. Not many live their trade-offs so fully. Too few novels have characters who care about something, anything, with real depth. In State of Wonder, everyone who counts cares.

The last 100 pages are extraordinary, and if the early middle section is sometimes confusing (thanks in part to Marina’s use of Lariam (Wikipedia: “The FDA product guide states it can cause mental health problems including: anxiety, hallucinations, depression, unusual behavior, and suicidal ideations among others”)), the end more than makes up for perceived early deficits. With a novel like this I can’t help but wonder if the sections I perceived as confusing were essential in some way I haven’t grasped.

“Ravishing” is an overused and often stupid word critics use, but I will use it here.

I have other reading to be done but I am still stuck pondering Drs. Swenson and Singh; this doesn’t happen very often.

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