State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

December’s book club book was State of Wonder and I managed to get it read this time. (It’s been hit-or-miss the last several book club meetings because I’ve been doing my own writing or reading other books or *ahem* reading tons of fan fiction.) The synopsis — which I usually tend to steal from somewhere else, and in this case, cribbed from booklist — goes like this:

Marina Singh gave up a career as a doctor after botching an emergency delivery as an intern, opting instead for the more orderly world of research for a pharmaceutical company. When office colleague Anders Eckman, sent to the Amazon to check on the work of a field team, is reported dead, Marina is asked by her company’s CEO to complete Anders’ task and to locate his body. What Marina finds in the sweltering, insect-infested jungles of the Amazon shakes her to her core. For the team is headed by esteemed scientist Annick Swenson, the woman who oversaw Marina’s residency and who is now intent on keeping the team’s progress on a miracle drug completely under wraps.

The thing I was struck by just three chapters in was the parallels to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel I really disliked, as it was one of the titles on the Great American Novel class I took in high school. I was sure I ranted about this sometime in the past, but I can’t seem to find a reference to it, so please indulge me while I go off on a tangent to explain: In my junior year of high school, we had a (male) teacher for a class called “The Great American Novel.” The reading list was lopsided in favor of male protagonists, war settings, and general testosterone. I can’t remember the entire list (possibly because I’ve tried as hard as I could to block out the experience) but this is at least part of it:

Strangely, these were missing from the reading list: To Kill a Mockingbird, Iris Murdoch, Edith Wharton… you see my point? Too much war and males finding themselves in colonialist exploration. The Great Gatsby was the one of the few novels where the author didn’t spend the whole book polishing the knob of the protagonist. Vonnegut would have been good if not for the juxtaposition with Catch-22. After reading Hemingway, my only feelings were that it would be a good idea to learn manly sports like boxing and fighting if only to beat the crap out of guys like Hemingway. Henderson The Rain King just seemed like a giant tool.

The topper on this cake was that we got extra credit for taking the summer before the class to read more from the “canon” of accepted titles, so I spent the seminal summer of my high school experience reading war novels, working in the public library and a chicken restaurant, and wondering what the girl that I had a massive crush on was doing during her break and if it was possible that she would ever ever fall in love with me, none of which was good for my psycho-sexual development as an estrogen-aligned homo girl.

Anyways, When I noticed the parallels in State of Wonder to Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now, I wasn’t heartily encouraged by the book, despite the fact that State of Wonder has a female protagonist. Oh me of little faith. Patchett didn’t let me down with Bel Canto, so I don’t know why I expected her to do so here. Without being too much of a spoiler, she does take the notion of ‘the company man pursuing a rogue operative in the wilds as a metaphor for exploring their own inner darkness’ and neatly turns that notion on its head, exploring themes that never would have occurred to Conrad about exploitation, what the nature of civilization is, and what responsibilities corporations have to the world while using its resources. I was fortunate that Stephanie read the book before I did, and as I kept exclaiming with frustration over the actions of the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, she kept telling me “Keep reading! Keep reading! You’ll be glad you did!” She was right; the book had a very satisfying ending, and you too should keep reading until the end.

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