Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

State of Wonder

Posted by nliakos on August 21, 2011

by Ann Patchett (Harper Collins 2011)

It’s never a good idea to approach a book with unreasonably high expectations. I didn’t like Snow Falling on Cedars much the first time I read it because several of my friends had told me it was the best book they had ever read. (The second time I read it, I absolutely loved it.) I’ve been guilty of raving about favorite books (e.g., Corelli’s Mandolin) to friends who then read it and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Some of my favorite books are those I picked at random off the library shelf (e.g., Precious Bane) and read with no expectations whatsoever.

The unreasonable expectations in this case came not only from the book’s excellent reviews (like this one from Ron Charles in the Washington Post: “Loaded as the story is with profound ethical issues, Patchett also knows when to pack light to keep the adventure moving. In fact, as the end approaches, “State of Wonder” crashes toward a breathless conclusion as though she’s being chased by a swarm of Amazonian wasps. This is surely the smartest, most exciting novel of the summer.”), but also from the fact that one of Patchett’s previous novels, Bel Canto, is one of my favorite books (one of those I read over and over and never tire of). So I came to State of Wonder in a state of anticipation, assuming I would find in it the same beloved characters and magical reality I had found in the previous book.

Not so.  State of Wonder is good, but it’s just good. It’s not fantastic (at least not on the first reading, not for me).  Instead of inhabiting the minds of many different characters, all of whom the reader sympathizes and identifies with despite their diverse backgrounds and politics, as in Bel Canto, the author reveals to us only the thoughts and feelings of one protagonist, Marina Singh, whom Carolyn Kellogg of the L.A. Times characterizes as “an ordinary woman.”  (None of the characters in Bel Canto could be described as ordinary, which was for me part of their appeal.)  And there were no real surprises until the end; even then, I was not blown away by the climax–discomfited by the cavalier treatment of the indigenous deaf boy Easter, yes (as was Marina, but I got the feeling that she got over it rather quickly), but not blown away, the breath knocked out of me, as I was when reading about the police assault in Bel Canto.

Oh well, it isn’t fair to take Patchett to task for not measuring up to her other book. State of Wonder is a good book.  I read it in four days (I was able to put it down, but interested enough to keep picking it up again.). It does make you think about medical ethics and ties between friends and colleagues.  But I wouldn’t say it’s a great book.

I am still waiting for someone to make Bel Canto into a movie. Maybe Alfonso Arau, who directed Like Water for Chocolate (a book I could not imagine as a movie until I saw it), could do the honors?

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