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Review: ‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett

Review: ‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett post image

Title: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: A young pharmaceutical scientist heads into the heart of darkness that is the Amazonian rain forest to find her lost coworker and confront a scientist on the loose.

One Sentence Review: Anne Patchett’s beautiful writing alone is enough reason to read this book.

Why I Read It: I have a special place in my heart of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so hearing this one compared to it was enough to make me want to read it.

Long Review: When Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical research scientist, is sent to the jungle in search of an elusive colleague and former mentor, it looks like a lost mission. Dr. Annick Swenson is supposed to be working on a miracle fertility drug. Instead, she’s cut of communication with her funders and refuses to tell anyone where she actually is. Marina’s research partner, Anders Eckman, was sent to find Dr. Swenson first, but died before he could complete the mission. As Marina heads into the Amazon, it’s unclear what she’ll find and how she will be able to battle her own demons while dealing with complicated ethical questions and the ire of Dr. Swenson.

One of the big reasons this particular popular fiction title stood out to me was a repeated suggestion that Patchett has written the female Heart of Darkness. I mean, it’s almost impossible to read any professional review of the book and not have some reference to Joseph Conrad’s book. Even the book description from the publisher ends with the line, “It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side.”

In my view, that’s a good thing, since I’ve always held a special place in my heart for Heart of Darkness, but that’s not the case for everyone. While it’s possible my Heart of Darkness expertise is fading, I didn’t see much connection between the two other than the premise of the book — a person is sent into the Amazonian wilderness to search for a lost colleague and deal with someone that has, potentially, gone crazy out in the jungle.

Plot questions aside, this book is worth reading if only for Patchett’s beautiful writing. She had this way of moving back in forth in time and space, from Marina’s present to her past, from the Amazon to Minnesota to India, without ever missing a beat or leaving the reader behind. Her descriptions of people and the jungle were intense and captivating. I was drawn in throughout the entire story.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ending of the book or the questions it raised, or even, in some ways, what I thought of the book as a whole… but the writing, wow. I cannot wait to try another one of Patchett’s books to visit her beautiful prose again.

Other Reviews: Caribousmom | Words and Peace |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Diane@BibliophileBytheSea November 21, 2011, 5:58 am

    Glad that you had a chance to read this one. I love the writing as well, and thought the story was good as well. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:47 pm

      I’m glad we got to read this one as well, I liked it quite a bit.

  • Colleen November 21, 2011, 7:25 am

    I am reading this now and am loving it. It was a book club pick and I was hesitant because I couldn’t get through Bel Canto but this seems completely different to me.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:49 pm

      I haven’t read Bel Canto, but I did pick up a copy while I was out shopping over the weekend. I’m curious about it now, especially since you say it’s different.

  • Wendy November 21, 2011, 8:13 am

    I completely agree with your review – her writing is gorgeous, and for that alone the book is worth reading. I was not fond of the ending at all. My review is here: http://www.caribousmom.com/2011/10/18/state-of-wonder-book-review/

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:49 pm

      I loved her writing, it was just so beautiful.

  • Emma November 21, 2011, 8:35 am

    I read this book last summer and enjoyed it very much. At the same time, I listened to Bel Canto, so I reviewed them together. I think Patchett has a special thing for endings: http://wordsandpeace.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/bell-canto-and-state-of-wonder/

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:51 pm

      I don’t know what I thought of the ending… it didn’t seem like much closure, but I’m not sure if that matters much.

      • Emma November 29, 2011, 11:32 pm

        lots of other bloggers make a big deal about her conclusion, I mean, they usually say it’s lousy and they hate it. But I thought it was good in its originality, same thing for Bel Canto

        • Kim November 30, 2011, 6:33 pm

          I didn’t really hate it… I just wasn’t sure what to think. I have read lots of people who didn’t like it at all. I’m really curious about Bel Canto though.

  • Jeane November 21, 2011, 10:27 am

    I’ve never read Heart of Darkness but I do love Prachett’s writing, so am adding this one to my list.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:52 pm

      I hope you like it!

  • Andi November 21, 2011, 10:47 am

    This one is high on my wishlist and I have a gift card to burn, so it’s a good possibility I’ll be reading this in the near future.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:52 pm

      Ooo, awesome. I thought it was beautifully written, easy to get drawn into.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) November 21, 2011, 11:26 am

    I thought the writing was gorgeous, but I wasn’t crazy about the ending – it just seemed out of character for Marina. I also thought the middle of the book dragged a bit.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:52 pm

      Yeah, I don’t know about the ending either. It seemed abrupt, perhaps, or just a little off.

  • Meg November 21, 2011, 12:47 pm

    I’ve had this one in my bookcase for a while and keep meaning to grab it, and I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Heart Of Darkness! I remember seeing it on our optional summer reading lists in high school, but I always chose something else.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:53 pm

      Heart of Darkness is, I think, an acquired taste. It’s a very strange little book, but it has a special place in my heart.

  • Trisha November 21, 2011, 2:59 pm

    Sometimes it is enough to read a book for the language alone.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:53 pm

      For sure. Beautiful writing is key for me.

  • Aths November 21, 2011, 8:03 pm

    I loved this book too! The ending was a bit meh to me, but other than that, it was just beautiful!

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:54 pm

      Yes, totally agree. Her writing was just stellar.

  • softdrink November 21, 2011, 9:42 pm

    I still can’t decide whether or not I want to read this. I even sat down with it in the bookstore for awhile and ended up leaving it behind. It didn’t grab me, but I’m still a little curious. I’m sure I’ll get to it, just not any time soon.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:56 pm

      The beginning could have been a little bit slow, but I did think it picked up. And like I said, the writing was just gorgeous.

  • Amused November 21, 2011, 10:36 pm

    Sounds like the writing is well worth the ride!

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:56 pm


  • Leeswammes (Judith) November 22, 2011, 3:38 am

    I enjoyed this book too! http://leeswammes.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/book-review-state-of-wonder-by-ann-patchett/

    I thought the events towards the end were rather far-fetched. But I read this book less than 6 months ago and already I’m considering re-reading it, as I did enjoy it a lot.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:57 pm

      I might reread this one, just to see if some of the plot pulls together better on a second read.

  • Kailana November 22, 2011, 4:45 am

    Seeing this book around has made me think I am going to have to check it out one of these days.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:57 pm

      I hope you can give it a shot!

  • Jeanne November 22, 2011, 7:53 am

    Thinking about the ending and whether this novel is like Heart of Darkness (I hadn’t read that before I read it, but react as you do, that it’s a surface similarity) makes me like the ending better. It’s a sort of satiric ending, I think, made to require the reader to make up her mind about how a modern woman should act in a first world country, based on what Marina learned in the jungle.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 8:58 pm

      Hmmm, that’s a really good point. That makes a lot of sense. Smart as always, Jeanne 🙂

  • Steph November 22, 2011, 3:28 pm

    I haven’t read Heart of Darkness, but I know what it’s about and it’s major themes, and like you, I don’t really see how many/any of them apply to this novel. I think critics got overly influenced by the similar settings and so just ran with it, but I think this novel is really about other things altogether. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I did admire Patchett’s storytelling so I’m sure I’ll read some of her other works in the future as well.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 9:02 pm

      Yes, I think it’s very much the setting, although the plot does have some similarities too (the whole heading into the jungle thing). I loved the way she was able to tell so many stories at the same time.

  • Vasilly November 22, 2011, 3:39 pm

    I with Jill on this one. It sounds like a great book and I’ll probably get to it someday but not soon. Great review.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 9:02 pm

      I feel that way about quite a few books 🙂

  • christa @ mental foodie November 22, 2011, 11:47 pm

    I felt the same way – I like her writing even though this is not my genre, but her writing is very atmospheric. I don’t know how I feel about the ending either. Here’s my review: http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2011/06/book-review-state-of-wonder-novel-by.html

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 9:02 pm

      Yes, atmospheric is exactly the right word for her writing.

  • Jenny November 23, 2011, 7:17 am

    I was impressed by the writing too, and enjoyed the book far more than I expected to. I am not normally sustained by beautiful writing. But I’m glad to hear you say that this doesn’t have as much in common with Heart of Darkness as everyone’s been saying! I haven’t read Heart of Darkness, and am not a hundred percent sure I want to, and I’m relieved to hear that my State of Wonder reading experience wasn’t necessarily damaged by that omission in my reading history.

    • Kim November 29, 2011, 9:03 pm

      Nah, I don’t think so. Maybe if I reread Heart of Darkness I’d think differently, but being dull on the details didn’t seem to hurt my reading experience any.