I found this review quite difficult to write, much as I found parts of the book hard to read. The strange thing is that I’m not sure why I struggled so much with the beginning of this book.
I have read Ann Patchett’s famous ‘Bel Canto’, which I thoroughly enjoyed although I was a little frustrated by the ending. Yet State of Wonder was exactly the opposite. I have seen so many glowing reviews of it over the last few weeks, many of which were by readers whose advice I almost always take. Everyone, it seems, loves this book. So when I picked it up I had high expectations and was looking forward to getting sucked into the world of the Brazilian jungle. Fifty pages later I was getting frustrated, and it felt as though the book was still going nowhere fast.
Although it took me a few days, I persevered, simply because of all the good things I had heard about it. Then, about halfway through, something just clicked into place, and I found myself reading faster and faster as I became engrossed in the story at last. I think part of the problem is that so much of the beginning of the book is taken up by waiting. You know that Marina (the main character) is going to go to Brazil in the end, and that she is eventually going to reach the jungle. The problem is that it takes so long, and while she is bored and irritated, it is all too easy for the reader to echo her feelings. In a way this is testament to Patchett’s talent at drawing you into the world of the book, but it does slow the story down.
Nevertheless, despite the disappointing opening, I am so glad that I carried on and finished State of Wonder. Why? Because the second half of the book more than makes up for the first. There is real emotion in the writing, and the characters are well-drawn and more than a little real. The interaction between scientists and members of the local tribes is fascinating, and Easter, a young deaf boy, is my favourite character by far. The story revolves partly around the science and discoveries that Marina is sent to check up on, and partly around the death of her predecessor Anders Eckman, who was her friend and colleague. She has promised his wife that she will find out exactly what happened to him, and the emotion of this storyline was what made the book all the more special.
Soon after his wife hears of his death at the beginning of the story, a letter arrives that he wrote a long time ago in the jungle, and these letters, which it becomes clear he wrote with increasing desperation as he became more ill, keep surfacing due to the slow and unreliable post. These letters from a dying man to his wife and young sons at home are so poignant that it is impressive that the scientific side of the story managed to be equally compelling.
Knowing that I hadn’t really liked the ending of her previous book ‘Bel Canto’, I was wary of how this one would end. But in fact I thought it was as close to perfect as it could possibly have been. The last quarter of this book in particular was a masterpiece, so my advice is to read this as soon as you get the chance. If you find the opening as tough as I did then please hang in there – the pace picks up later on, and it’s well worth your while to continue to the end. I’m just glad that I had read all the positive reviews and had the courage of my convictions to stick at it all the way through!