State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (2011, HarperCollins, 353 pages, paperback.)
I had always meant to re-read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder since the very first time I finished it, back in January of 2014. It’s a powerful, gripping, lush novel – the kind you want to just crawl into and roll around in the words. And that ending! I mean – !!!?!?!??? Even after my re-read, when I finished the book, I had to resist turning back and starting over. This is all to say when the lovely Care asked if I wanted to do a read-along, and then the equally fabulous Debbie and Stacy raised their hands, I had no choice but to pull the book off my shelves and dive in.
This is the point where the spoilers get awfully spoilery, and YOU GUYS, this book! It is filled with lots of shocking twists and turns, ones that make you gasp and yell and maybe throw your book (damn ending), so if you’re ever going to read it, AVERT YOUR EYES!! Go read something else. Because SPOILERS. SPOILERY SPOILERS.
So what’s the deal with the book? Why have I been burning up the phone twittering away every night? Because this was a five-star book for me, you guys. I had resisted – environmental books aren’t my jam, and the whole point was for Marina (our protag) to leave Wisconsin for the the wilds of the Amazon rain forest to find her former mentor who is developing a fertility drug. Oh, and find the last worker at her company who went looking for her mentor, the worker who died. So Marina’s boss (and recent lover) sends her off.
The beginning of the book is filled with stories of Marina’s fractured childhood, particularly her occasional (every four years?) visits to her father in India, trips for which she needed to take an anti-malarial that really messed up Marina’s head. Psycho-tripping kind of messed up. It sets up the relief that we’re supposed to feel when the fertility drug turns out to be a better anti-malarial, and it also sets up Marina’s identity issues. Who does she belong to? How does she think of herself? In the first third of the novel, Marina focuses on her differences: she is not part of a family, she is not a practicing medical doctor, she is not light-skinned like most of her co-workers. As she travels deeper into the Amazon and takes up residence first in Manaus, Brazil, and later in the village of the Lakashi people, Marina focuses more on her place in the world rather than her appearance and ways she finds herself lacking. When her suitcase is lost (for the second time), and her clothes are stolen off her back following a messy c-section, Marina is gifted clothes like the Lakashi wear, completing her transition. Resistance is futile. Marina dresses like the Lakashi, wears her hair like the Lakashi, and eats the bark off the fertility trees like the Lakashi.
While all of this identity questioning is in play, Anders – the dead co-worker – dances in the back of Marina’s mind. It was interesting watching Marina think of dead Anders. She glorified him in death, becoming much closer to her friend and office roommate in death than she was in life. I mean, sure they were close – anyone who shares office space knows how close you become – but Marina practically deified the guy. You see her fall for the guy slowly as she remembers what he was like, studying him in her memory as she goes searching for meaning in his crazy last adventure. Even the wacky Bovenders (good grief, how they annoyed me) noticed and asked Marina if she was in love with him.This complicates matters because it was Anders’ wife, someone Marina had become friends with after breaking the news, who had asked Marina to go find out what happened, to gather the body if she could, and everything else that was Anders. To construct a narrative, a story, she could tell their boys about their father. (The grief scenes, by the way, were horribly on point and so fantastically realistic that I barely make it through them. They bring back bad memories.) So when ANDERS ENDS UP FRICKIN ALIVE, because he had just wandered off in a fever when he was sick and gotten kidnapped by another nearby tribe, I scared the living daylights out of everyone in the house because of the yelling. He was alive! That was wonderful! Because as Marina was falling for him, so were we in the audience. We were supposed to cheer! And we did! Who cares if it was believable – we were just happy it was true.
Not all shocking scenes were so unbelievable, though. There was one before the Anders reveal – the scene with the frickin’ anaconda. Or, as referred to it on Twitter as each of us were blown away: The Snake Scene!!! (Multiple exclamation points mandatory. And you’ll see why when you read it.) The story’s other favorite character, the one who was actually present, was little Easter. Easter, who had won over even Dr. Swenson, the mentor with the heart of a robot. Easter, who was maybe ten or twelve but looked six, who had attached himself to Anders, and then attaches himself to Marina. Easter, who is her guide, who helps her survive, who becomes Marina’s surrogate child, as he is to everyone he meets. Easter, whom we fall in love with. Easter pilots the boat whenever the group goes out, and so he was there when Marina, some of the other doctors from the research lab, and a few locals decide to go tourboating one afternoon. A local, who hopes to escape the Amazon by becoming a tour guide, grabs an Anaconda out of the river and then has a hell of a time keeping it from biting him. Easter steps in to save the day (as he always does), and manages to grab the snake close enough to its head that it can’t bite anyone. But in the struggle, the snake wraps itself around Easter without anyone noticing until it’s too late. Panic and some of the best descriptive writing I’ve ever read ensue. I’m telling you – the descriptions as the adults realize what’s happening, and then Easter’s rescue as they machete their gory way through the snake are incredible! I felt like I was there, looked down at my hands and was surprised that snaky gore wasn’t dripping from them, that my hands hadn’t just snapped the bones of the snake to get to Easter. It was that real. Patchett can write, you guys.
So with all this time invested in saving Easter and attaching him to characters and the readers, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised about that ending. That goddamned ending. The Bovenders arrive, much to Swenson’s extreme annoyance, bringing Marina’s friend and Manaus savior, Milton, and also her boss and lover, Mr. Fox. The party realizes everything is going fine. The fertility drug cannot be moved, and may never be developed, but the anti-malarial can. Marina realizes she doesn’t belong to Mr. Fox anymore. And Mrs. Bovender provides the vital clue that gets Anders rescued. Only the cannibalistic, warring tribe that has him demands Easter in return. Easter, who it turns out, was theirs to begin with. He was very ill as a child, and brought to Dr. Swenson to save. She did, but told the tribe that the child had died. She argued it was because he was deaf and would have been “sacrificed” or wish he had because of how he’d be treated. Still. The deaf child, the one we all adored, one who had no way of knowing why he was being given to strangers, one who wouldn’t know how to communicate with them, was left. Given away. AND THAT WAS THE END OF IT.
Can you understand my frustration with the novel? This wonderful, exquisitely written novel? They gave away a major character, and then treated it as if it was nothing! Sure, we got to watch Marina struggle with the same angst, but WHO BLOODY CARES! Who cares about identity issues or struggling with the question of whether you should intervene with new societies and cultures, or let them exist with as little disturbance as possible. I wasn’t in the mood to gush over the glowiness of the book’s soul or the think-about-ed-ness as I was reading. I wanted Easter back! Instead, Marina brings back her charge, broken by events. Broken, changed, but moving on, rather than staying to continue Dr. Swenson’s work. Maybe Easter would find his own way, somehow, though he was probably more broken and confused than anyone. If he’s supposed to mirror Marina, maybe he, too, would find a way home. To his real home with the Lakashi and Dr. Swenson and friends from Manaus, not the one he was traded to with the neighboring tribe. Maybe that’s why Marina leaves – to show us Easter will, too. He’ll make his own choices. Heavens knows he’s showed us how capable he is, despite his hearing loss.
And so concluded my re-read. I’m sure you’ve seen, but I’ll say it anyways: it was just as emotionally provocative the second time around. I highly encourage re-reading. You can soak up so many more details and really enjoy the story. It holds up well, which is good. I think I’ll be visiting again. (5 of 5 stars.)