State of Wonder

I found out yesterday that a high school classmate of mine passed away last week. We had all been 10-year-reunioning right around that time, too, wondering where she and many others were, and what they were up to, and if they were okay. Turns out “yes” is not always the answer to that innocent question. We had no idea.

I didn’t know Katherine well. My clearest image of her in my head is of her raising her hand a lot in class, striving for academic perfection — and usually reaching it — while the rest of us joked around and/or settled for the A- or B+ that we were destined to get anyway. My high school was filled with overachievers, but she was always a step above. She was an incredible artist, too, I remember that. I believe she went to Princeton.

I’ve been sitting on this review of State of Wonder, a delicious book by Ann Patchett, for some time now, trying to work out an angle in my head. It’s one of the best reads I’ve experienced in a long time, but even despite that, it was a stressful one, too. One of the main characters, Dr. Swenson, always left me agitated every time I read a scene that contained her. She was too three-dimensional — demanding more from me as a fictional character than most humans do when I interact with them in real life. And then it hit me. Dr. Swenson is a lot like how I remember Katherine. Witty when she wanted to be, but mostly unrelenting. Striving for the best in herself and, as a direct byproduct, causing the rest of us to strive for the best in ourselves. Extremely difficult to impress. I don’t want to speak for the rest of my classmates, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this news has hit me hard. I had been looking forward to seeing her at the reunion to find out what she was up to, to see if she was happy, and to — as weird as this sounds — to get her approval. She had this wisdom about her, even at age 15, that none of us came close to at the time. I can only imagine how it developed over the years. Again, I didn’t know her well. But I’m going to miss her. I hope we’re all making her proud, somehow.

In reviewing this book, it would seem that a lot of people have a similar figure in their lives at one point. Patchett certainly did — her inspiration had to come from someone, right? The Dr. Swenson character is a mentor for the other main character, Marina, but even “mentor” is a strained word. She provides inspiration, but without encouragement. She lives her life without much thought given to the lives of others — not out of ignorance, but out of complete security. She has her priorities in line more than anyone else, and she knows her relative place in the world. The conversations between Marina and Dr. Swenson always felt like video games (at least in my rudimentary understanding of them): If you don’t reach the next level, you plummet down a few and have to start over.

The premise of State of Wonder is very specific: A doctor, Anders, ventures down to Manaus, Brazil, to check up on Dr. Swenson and the status of a fertility drug that she’s been researching for years. Anders dies. Marina, another doctor who worked alongside Anders and once studied under Dr. Swenson, is sent down to Manaus to figure out what the hell just happened. Marina also happens to be in a relationship with the guy overseeing the drug development — the Big Pharma guy.

I’m not sure how Patchett managed to reach this level of specificity and nerdity in her writing, but I’ll take it. It’s a lesson in literature. The more specific you are, the easier it is to suspend the audience’s disbelief in the details. Of course, I’m certain that Patchett did her research, and that at least 90% of the science in the book is correct, but as you can see, I have no intention of fact-checking it all. I believe her. I suppose I was in my own “state of wonder” once I turned to page 2.

The real achievement here, though, is in making something so incredibly specific — the tropical setting, the occupations of the main characters — feel so universal and so exciting! She has a beautiful way with words, both tonally and creatively, and she knows how to upend a plot and take it in a completely unexpected direction. Here are a few passages that stood out to me in their universal depth — passages that she was also able to mine for interesting backstory details, too:

p. 8, on Anders’ widow // “And Marina did not forget her, but what was important between them was so deeply unspoken that there was never the chance to defend herself from that of which she had never been accused and was not guilty. Marina was not the kind of woman who fell in love with another woman’s husband…” Right away, she quashes the reader’s inclination to think that there was an affair happening.

p. 39 // “Things that had happened to Marina, the memories she saw as the logical candidates for nightmares, never entered her sleeping life, and she supposed that for this she should be grateful.”

p. 57 // “She no longer traced the events through the map of her memory, studying the various places where she had been free to make different choices.”

p. 146, on Anders // “She wondered how long it would be that she would think of him every day, and what it would feel like to realize that days had passed and she had forgotten to think of him at all.” Don’t we all think this, when someone dies? It’s heartbreaking.

p. 292, on the prospect of staying in Manaus // “The terror of the jungle was now redefined by the work it could dream up for her.” The longer she stayed in Manaus, the more important her role became.

p. 296, on befriending Easter, a deaf boy // “She had gotten very used to spending her time with someone who said nothing at all.”

There are also moments of quiet, creative, literary humor:

p. 13, on Anders’ widow’s dog // “Pickles leaned up against Marina now and he batted her hand with his head until she reached down to rub the limp chamois of his ears.”

p. 85, on meeting Dr. Swenson’s house-sitters // “She had pictured the Bovenders as being closer to her own age, without any of the drama inherent to so much bony attractiveness…”

p. 224, quoting a fellow researcher in Manaus // “‘I never rely on my memory when I’m drinking,’ was what Nancy Saturn had said.”

There’s not a particular flourish to her writing — Patchett doesn’t feel the need to embellish with fancy adjectives or flowery descriptions. And yet, in each of these sentences, she packs such a wealth of feeling and meaning. There’s such a beauty in that simple elegance. I’ve no doubt that the Marina character, who isn’t the narrator but is definitely the dominating presence in the book, contains a large part of the author herself. And there’s this naive, overly-simplifying, dreamy part of me that thinks that Katherine would have really enjoyed this kind of writing. It encapsulates art and logic perfectly.

I’d rather not get into more specifics of the plot. It’s too much work, yes, and it’s not worth it. The book itself is worth it — be it as an exciting summer read, a preview for visiting rural Brazil, a lesson in assimilation, or a coping mechanism. For me, it was the former initially, and the latter retroactively.

I’ll leave you with this quote, spoken by Dr. Swenson towards the end of the story, on p. 345:

No one tells the truth to people they don’t actually know, and if they do it is a horrible trait.

Katherine would have said something like that. With a wry smile on her face. I know it.

Rest in peace, K.D.Y.