Notes: State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is a book about Brazil and Minnesota, childless mothers and lost fathers, big pharma, bad dreams, stolen luggage, killer snakes, and not one, but two, cesarean sections performed without proper painkillers or anything approaching antiseptic conditions. I don’t do plot synopses, but suffice it to say such things make for good novel-reading.

The story’s old as dirt—a hero journeys to hell and back. And since the bodies buried in this particular cemetery are impossible to ignore, Ann Patchett digs them up and throws a zombie party (don’t worry—not literally). She makes font-size-20 references to Orpheus and Eurydice, Christ’s resurrection, and that urtext of postcolonial anxiety, Heart of Darkness. When a character greets another with "Dr. Singh, I presume," you laugh out loud. You’re meant to. And here, hell’s gatekeepers are a pair of fiercely tan, fearsomely beautiful, morally vague Australian freeloaders. I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno, but if you have, Wonder will probably reward you.

The book could easily have become a myth-fable-fairytale. And that would have been a shame because what makes this a culturally significant novel (yes, really!) is its right-nowness, its urgency. The scent of saint wafts off protagonist Marina Singh, a research scientist who made a single mistake 20 years earlier as a medical resident and has been punishing herself ever since with a steady diet of self-denial. Patchett heads off her beatification with subtle humor, suggesting that Marina, while a lovely person, really needs to get over the past and move the fuck on. Marina’s antithesis, the imperious and profoundly hypocritical Dr. Swenson, is, with a quick lens change, a tired, broken, sympathetic old woman. Saints should go practice their saintliness elsewhere.

And that’s the really wonderful thing about Patchett. That’s why you read her books (besides this one, I’ve read Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty). She’s generous about people. She’s the the kind of novelist critics call “humane” in book blurbs. Me, I’m not always sure what “humane” is supposed to mean in a literary context or why we should value it over other fiction-writer virtues like “ambitious” or “attentive to detail.” Patchett sets me straight. By her light, there are no bad people, only good, well-intentioned people who nevertheless do bad (or more likely, selfish), things. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, she seems to say, but it beats the alternative.

Several things really matter in this fictional universe: love, friendship, meaningful work and a serious commitment to doing the right thing. None of these are radical objectives, but Patchett makes their pursuit feel fresh and necessary. The book is remarkably unresolved about its central ethical dilemmas, asking the reader to consider them for herself. Should doctors always try to save a life? Is it OK to plunder the rainforest, displacing native populations and destroying natural resources, for the sake of a fertility drug? What if that drug’s a malaria cure that could potentially save millions in the developing world from a slow, painful death? And to what lengths should someone go to trick a drug company into funding important, but unprofitable, research?

Obviously, Patchett takes some risks with her big, big subjects and her disposition towards the redemptive (or as some call it, the happy ending). A deaf child named Easter, a native Amazonian and surrogate son to several of the novel’s characters, staggers under the weight of his symbolic load. To be perfectly honest, it takes a spot of reader generosity to get past the kid’s “noble savageness.” A couple other plot developments, including a miraculous recovery, also irk. How much depends on your taste and temperament and receptiveness to, well, wonder. But you’ve been warned (on the title page no less) and this book’s worth the work.

Speaking of work (and reflecting on my last Challenge read, The Stranger’s Child), Patchett crafts brilliant dialogue. Any given conversation is a hot, late-afternoon game of amateur tennis, a sultry succession of graceful volleys, magnificent in play.

My 2012 book challenge

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