Review + Giveaway: State of Wonder by Anne Patchett

12 Jul

Much has been said about Anne Patchett’s new novel, State of Wonder, nearly all of it praising the story and lauding Patchett’s talent. All of the praise is, in my opinion, well-earned.

Under the narrative voice of Dr. Mariana Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher in Minnesota, Patchett explores the strings that exist between a world that is known and understood and a world that is absolutely foreign and, at times, mystifying. The opening of the novel sets out the premise: Dr. Singh’s research partner and friend, Anders Eckman, has been sent by their pharmaceutical company to check up on the progress of a mysterious drug research project in the Amazonian basin, being conducted by Dr. Singh’s former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson is not a woman who likes to be “checked up” on and has really gone off the grid, without any reports to the company or anyone else for that matter on the drug’s progress, even though she keeps sending bills for her work to them. After Anders has been gone several months, Dr. Singh’s boss and lover receives a letter from Dr. Swenson, informing them that Anders has died and they’ve buried him in Brazil. Encouraged by both her boss/lover and Ander’s widow, Mariana travels to Brazil in search of any information about Anders and his death, and to complete the mission he was originally sent to accomplish. But first she must find Dr. Swenson, with trepidatious fears about her personal history with her former teacher and a sense of well-reasoned discomfort at persuading this notoriously private and intimidating woman to let go of any information whatsoever about both Anders and her research.

The premise of Patchett’s novel is complicated, I’ll admit. And her narrative thread, moving Mariana from the cold of Minnesota winter to the scorching sun of Brazil and the Amazon, is sometimes difficult to keep hold of. But in the end, the story is quite simple. Inventive…but simple. It’s a story filled with massive snakes, wandering hippies, the business of drug research, fertility, mortality, giant snakes, orphans, and cannibals. But at it’s heart, Patchett has written a story about belonging and love and sacrifice. And about how when you think the story is over, it’s only just taken another turn and landed you here you didn’t expect to be at all.

Published by Harper, Patchett’s novel has the potential to be one of my favorites of the year. I suspect I will not be the only one that will be putting it on their short list for Best Books of 2011 come January, and already the praise it’s received has been loud and ardent. The thing about this book – and the reason for the largely-summarized review here, rather than my normal discussions of character and structure – is that this book is all about how you feel during your reading of it. If there exists a book that transports you more fully to its setting, I’d like to see it, because I felt distinctly IN Brazil, IN the Amazon, while I was reading it, and the book is so aptly named, Patchett must have been describing both the atmosphere around Mariana and the sense of mystification you as a reader leave the story with.

However, the story is slow-moving in parts and while there is a certain amount of suspense that develops, it is quiet and urgent, but totally unsuspecting. You don’t even realize you’re racing to the see how it ends until you’re pausing during a particularly gorgeous piece of writing, and going, “Oh my God. Oh my…God.” That being said, I also was left with a bit of blah-ness. I was enthralled with the language, the story and the atmosphere Patchett creates, but I also wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care about any of the characters. And as much life as Patchett breathes into setting the mood, the conclusion of the book was… confusing and questionable at best. At worst, it was implausible, in the larger context of the rest of the book.

One more point I’d like to make that Patchett touches on in the second video I’ve posted below is the idea of the author consciously being aware of her readers and generating questions in it’s writing that would arise in a group setting, like a book club. I’m both skeptical of whether it’s a good idea for authors to consider the ways in which their readers will approach the book in the process of writing it, and grateful to be, in a way, given permission to ponder the questions that came up for me personally. Like the ethics of pharmaceutical research and how far is too far when you’re talking about what biology is and isn’t designed to handle.

State of Wonder is mostly on target, and while I did have a few problems with the narrative voice or the pacing of the book, they had mostly evaporated by the end. Unfortunate that the ending of the book wasn’t what I was expecting – though my expectations of the book were pretty much blown out of the water from the beginning. I’d only ever read Patchett’s memoir, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, detailing the friendship she had with author Lucy Grealy, which is absolutely beautiful. (Also, highly recommended.)

Watch Patchett read the opening pages here:

Watch Patchett discuss State of Wonder here:

This is the point at which I’d normally tell you to go buy a copy, but I’ve got one…for free! FOR YOU!!

Thanks to Harper, I’ve got an extra pre-release galley copy of State of Wonder. All you need to do is leave a comment and make sure the email you provide is accurate so I can get in touch with you if you win. For an extra entry, tweet the giveaway, and make sure you use my Twitter handle – @homebtwnpages – so I can see your tweet.  And if you left a comment on my Summer Reading post, you’ll be automatically entered once. If you’d like to comment again and also tweet it, you’ll get two more!

I’ll announce the winner of this giveaway next Monday, July 18th! Good luck :).


15 Responses to “Review + Giveaway: State of Wonder by Anne Patchett”

  1. Heather July 12, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    My TBR pile is so large that I had to put myself on a buying ban for the Summer… but there are so many books I want to read, including this one. It would be lovely to win it, because then I haven’t cheated on my buying ban. Hahaha! Great review.

  2. Mandy July 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    I would love to win this! I’ve been hearing so many great things! 🙂

  3. Greg Zimmerman July 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    “It’s a story filled with massive snakes, wandering hippies, the business of drug research, fertility, mortality, giant snakes, orphans, and cannibals.” = sold! Great review – I have a much better feel for this book now. It’s that one book this summer that everyone’s raving about, but I’ve largely ignored…until now.

    (You don’t have to enter me in your giveaway, though – I’m probably actually going to buy the hardcover for my “collection.” )

    • Rachel July 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

      You’ll notice I talked about the snakes twice. I didn’t realize that until just now, but clearly they made an impact 🙂 I won’t enter you, but I’m happy my review sold you. As I said, there were issues, but not enough to tell anyone not to read it. It’s a great one.

  4. Carrie Clark July 12, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    I have heard so much about this book and would love a copy! Her NPR interview was fantastic.

  5. RFW July 12, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    Already read and reviewed it – thoroughly enjoyed it too.

  6. Meg @ A Bookish Affair July 12, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    Woohoo! I’m so excited for this book!

  7. Patti Gay July 12, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    Love her writing. Have read everything else she has written.

    Would love to win this!

  8. Jo-Jo July 13, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    I would love a chance to win this one!

  9. Colleen July 16, 2011 at 11:26 pm #

    wonderful, detailed review! Practically every review I have read for this book has been glowing so I would love to win a copy – thanks! booksncity (at) gmail (dot) com

  10. pburt July 17, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    I would love to be entered – thank you

  11. Dorothy W. July 17, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    Count me in! Thank you!! ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com.

  12. Angie July 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

    There’s so much buzz about this one that now I’m very curious! And anything with ties to my home state of Minnesota gets extra points from me! Thanks for doing these giveaways!!


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