2012 is shaping up to be a banner year in the reading department. In the last month alone, I have burned through five full novels, a food narrative/cookbook and two unabridged audiobooks. Now I’m furiously working my way through a sixth novel before a book club deadline next weekend. I’m sure that pace can be attributed to my recent downtime, but also to a pent-up, post-school need to voraciously consume words, characters and stories.
Some of the selections have been enjoyable, some not so much. But one title was so special that I’m going to have to add it to my top 10 of all time, if not top 5. It is Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder.”
I can’t always explain how I find the books I read, though Julie’s theory that books find you when you’re supposed to read them usually holds up. In that vein, I somehow came to reserve “State of Wonder” at the library. I know friends have posted it on Goodreads in the last year, and perhaps I also saw it on a “top” list from an email newsletter or newspaper book review. No matter its delivery, I haven’t been so engrossed in a book in quite a long time.
In it (potential spoilers ahead!), Marina is a scientist for a pharmaceutical company based in Minneapolis. The CEO has been bankrolling a renowned scientist, Dr. Swenson, on a drug study in the jungle of Brazil for years, but has had infrequent contact with her. He sends Marina’s lab partner Anders to the jungle to find Dr. Swenson and report back on her progress with the drug. Soon the company receives a letter from Dr. Swenson vaguely explaining that Anders has died from fever. Anders’ distraught wife appeals to Marina, as his partner and as a single woman without family ties, to go to the jungle and bring his body home. The story is Marina’s journey to find Dr. Swenson and what really happened to her friend.
The author surely started with strong character sketches and a story outline, but the time and research she must have put in to fill in the rest is overwhelmingly impressive. She transported me to a world and into subject matters with which I have zero experience — and I was so completely absorbed in Marina’s plight that I nearly couldn’t put the book down! Not only are the characters relatable and the science fascinating, but the dialogue is rich and true. Some authors’ dialogue annoys me — it can be weak, cliche, absurd or even meaningless in driving the story forward. In State of Wonder, the dialogue is so well done that it serves to illuminate, and especially in the case of Dr. Swenson, even primarily define the characters.
The real star in the book is the detail — I love and appreciate an author who clearly loves and appreciates words and descriptions. Ann Patchett strikes a balance — she doesn’t spend four pages talking through leaves on a tree (ahem, Charles Frazier). Whether it’s pharmacology, gynecology, tribal people native to the rainforest, or just the atmosphere of traveling the Rio Negro or walking the streets of the Brazilian city of Manaus, she properly educates and provides a portrait that makes it come alive in your imagination.
I just drank up every word.
The books that mean the most to me aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re ready to get lost in a story — full of suspense and intrigue and a little danger — then I highly recommend this one.