Review: ‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett

In some of the 1980s and some of the 90s, whenever anyone asked me what my favourite book was, I’d tell them it was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  And we’d often then get into a conversation about how the first 100 pages were a bit slow, but how it was worth it.  Ann Patchett’s new(ish) novel reminded me of this, because when I first picked it up – full of anticipation after reading her earlier novel ‘Bel Canto’ years ago – I felt myself carried along rather more sedately than I’d expected, at the broad and stately pace of the river at the heart of the book. Patchett had woven Bel Canto around a hostage situation in an embassy, and explored the various unexpectedly complex dynamics between terrorists and hostages.  State of Wonder just isn’t as flashy as that.  It’s about the pharmaceutical industry at the sharp end of discovery, in the field.  Given that the field is the Amazon, the setting is interesting, but not sensational. But if you are thinking of reading State of Wonder, I want to tell you that it IS worth the gentle, even meandering start.

Side note: I rarely write book reviews as I personally hate anything that spoils the joy of discovering the unfolding narrative as freshly as possible.  In scanning the ‘Books’ pages, I’ll often do the visual equivalent of fingers-in-ears ‘la la la i can’t hear you’ by reading only the first couple of sentences and last couple of sentences of reviews and nervously skipping over the text in between.  Sometimes I hide the body of the review with my hands to make sure I don’t read it.  You’d be right to imagine this is a bit fraught/neurotic/bonkers as a technique, so I usually get my reading list from an accumulation of friends’ suggestions (and I had at least two for this book).

But in case it piques your interest to know anything more about the book, I will just say three things.  One, that the main characters are three of the least unlikely lead characters of any mainstream novel.  Two, that Patchett seems to have rounded them out into interesting, complicated people with remarkably little effort or filler. Not since I read a couple of Franzens last year has the spirit of a novel’s central character stayed with me like this, like a wine with good length. Three, I find myself believing that the story in this book is real. Rationally, I know it isn’t, but actually, I think it is. So the book’s not without flaws – I suspect the start could have been less meandering – but I can’t stop imagining and assuming that it’s somewhere carrying on without my participation as a reader, and I feel as if my world has been a little bit expanded by reading it.  Noel Tichy once said “the best way to get people to venture into unknown terrain is to make it desirable by taking them there in their imaginations.” Not sure I’ll be venturing to Manaus anytime soon, but I am wondering what the weather’s like there right now.

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