To start this review off, I think I should mention I was a massive fan of Bel Canto. I thought it was a phenomenal piece of work, it changed the way I viewed the post-modern novel, and it introduced me to the concept of magical realism. I really can’t sing enough praise for that book. Then as soon as I heard Patchett had written a new novel, I knew I had to read it. For me this meant waiting over a month for my local bookstore to get the book in, but I told myself it would be worth every second.
I was wrong.
While State of Wonder was an interesting book, it didn’t live up to the expectations that had been left in Bel Canto’s wake. In comparison with her last work, the characters felt like bland, unmotivated marionettes moved about by an inept puppet master. Their decision making skills seemed questionable at the best of times, and the way they react to the world and people around them makes you wonder why you should care if they don’t seem to. For example, Marina Singh, from whose perspective the story is told, has four important people in her life, and she treats each of them with varying amounts of indifference: there is her boss, Mr. Fox, who in spite of being her lover is always refered to by his honorific (even in her head); Dr. Swenson, her former mentor, who Marina treats as a moving puzzle with a hint of nostalgia; Dr. Anders Eckman, her colleague who is presumed dead for most of the book; and finally Easter, the deaf and mostly mute orphan boy from the Amazon, where most of the book takes place. These people should mean something more to her, but for the life of me I couldn’t feel it.
However, Marina’s off-putting detachment from the people most important to her is nothing compared to her detachment with herself. From the sheer number of times she puts herself at risk because of some obviously bad decision I had to wonder if she had a secret death wish. It was as if Marina was numb to the world, with only a vague sense of duty to keep her going. Yet in spite of all this, I persevered, determined to see what Patchett had in store for the end.
Then I read the last twenty pages.
I’ll try not to go into too many details, but in the final twenty pages of her book, Patchett took a story which had drifted away from its original premise (which I had actually enjoyed), and wrenched it forcibly back on course. Characters which I had slowly (and painfully) become invested in were irrecoverably warped and the ending of the story felt hastily slapped together. It reminded me of the days where I read more comic books and everything just magically reset to restore the status quo.
What I loved about Bel Canto is that when the story drifted, you drifted with it. You were carried away by this sense of unreality, and when it all came crashing down in the end there was an elegance in the destruction that was humbling in a way that’s difficult to describe. I believe Patchett tried to recreate that in this latest work, but failed to invest herself, and by default her readers, in her characters the same way she did before.
When I read State of Wonder, I kept waiting for the wonder to kick in, but I never felt it. By the end I didn’t feel awed; I felt annoyed, and to be honest a little betrayed. It felt as if a writer I admired had come down with a case of explosive amnesia and forgotten everything she knew about character development. I know Ann Patchett can do better, and I pray that she will in her next work.
If you feel the same, or even if you disagree, leave a comment.