Something I've always wondered -- is a book good because of the story it tells or how it's told? Is a writer talented because of WHAT she says or how she says it? Then I remember the best books are a perfect combination of both -- which is the case with this summer's big book State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.
As she demonstrated in her 2001 novel Bel Canto, Ann Patchett has a phenomenal imagination. Her latest novel is one of those hugely satisfying reads that even the most articulate reader is reduced to describing as "just so good."
The last title that earned this kind of flat-out recommendation from everyone I know was last year's bestseller Cutting for Stone; both books share such an original and compelling story that something close to grief arises as you approach the last chapter.
A combination of Heart of Darkness and my favorite children's book ever, Brave Irene -- the story centers on Dr. Marina Singh's quest to investigate the death of a colleague who went deep into the Amazon to check on the efforts of a Dr. Annik Swenson -- a research scientist and former teacher of our heroine who has gone AWOL while developing a drug that prolongs fertility in women into advanced ages. Marina must confront her former mentor, her own medical skill and use all the nerve she possesses to discover many more truths than she bargained for.
The Amazon itself is both setting and main character as well as providing the best of any summer reading -- a gorgeous diversion. Example:
Marina had thought that the important line that was crossed was between the dock and the boat, the land and the water. She had thought the water was the line where civilization fell away. But as they glided between two thick walls of breathing vegetation she realized she was in another world entirely, and that she would see civilization drop away again and again before their reached their final destination. All Marina could see was green. The sky, the water, the bark of the trees: everything that wasn't green became green. All in green my love went riding.
Patchett combines this kind of literary reverie with a crystal clear plot that starts slow and gathers deliberate speed to a truly breath-taking resolution. She bucks two trends that have come to annoy me in current fiction -- jumping around with the timeline to seem arty while really just making the reader struggle to keep things straight and what I dubbed "grief porn" in an essay last summer -- the kind of emotional manipulation that employs tragedy to keep women readers in particular sucked in. This is not chick lit -- it's an adventure story with tons of heart.
Here is a recent interview I had with Ann Patchett via email:
Q. Most of the novel takes place in both in the Amazon -- in city of Manaus and the deepest jungle there. Here is the Amazon-Amazon link (!) with your interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. As a story teller, what attracted you most to such a primeval setting?
A. I needed a place that had both malaria and medical possibilities. As far as malaria is concerned, I could have set the story in Africa or India or Indonesia, but none of those places had the same kind of pharmaceutical mythology that would have allowed me to present a made-up drug that seemed slightly plausible. Once I got to the Amazon and took a look around I wanted to set all future books there. It's such a lush canvas, I felt like I could pull of nearly anything in a setting like that.
Q. In an interview with Diane Rehm you discuss one of the lessons of this book is "never be so focused on what you're looking for that you overlook the things you actually find." You added, "There are a lot of ethical questions in this book and I don't have the answers... nobody in this book is right or wrong, but they're all struggling to find their way through a very complicated maze of ethics." State of Wonder is also a novel of constant and game-changing revelation and discovery in life-and-death situations -- it fair to say another theme could be about how people behave when the stakes become incredibly high?
A. Sure. I think that's a classic literary device: let's turn the heat up on these nice people and see what they're made of. I could compile a long list of novels and films that get their forward momentum from that exact premise.
Q. To me two of the most memorable characters in the book are Dr. Swenson and Easter. Both share a purity of soul, a deep bond and fundamentally never change -- Dr. Swenson in her heartless scientific pursuit and Easter in his otherworldly goodness. Both have a huge affect on the protagonist Marina. Can you elaborate a bit on how you saw their roles in the story?
A. Is Dr. Swenson heartless in her scientific pursuit? After all, she is ultimately trying to pull off something rather extraordinary for humanity but reviewers call her a villain. I think I like Dr. Swenson a lot more than most people do. I relate to her. She's a person who just wants to get her work done. As for Easter's otherworldly goodness, well, he's deaf and doesn't speak. He's a wonderful boy but he's also a screen on which everyone can project whatever they want him to be. Easter and Dr. Swenson are both extremely competent people. They are who Marina can count on. She may not always like Dr. Swenson, but she isn't surprised by her anymore.
Q. The Holy Grail of this story is a fertility drug that will allow women to bear children into their '70s. And young Easter's story is exceptionally poignant and lovingly told. Do you think this book and your other novels have a particularly feminine love of and emphasis on children?
A. It would be strange if they did because I don't have children and frankly, I've never been very comfortable around them (the bigger they are, the better I get). Maybe I'm trying to work something out on a subconscious level. Maybe I write the kind of children I'd want to have and not the kind that actually exist. I'm thinking about the little boy who loved the vice president in Bel Canto, I can't remember his name, and Kenya in Run, and now Easter. They're all courageous and charming and orphans at some level. Come to think of it, they're all probably Shirley Temple. I was a huge fan of Shirley Temple movies when I was a child.
Q. Your work ranges from exotic fiction like this book and Bel Canto to journalistic memoirs -- Truth and Beauty: A Friendship and What Now? -- can you discuss how you shift gears? Which is next?
A. Nonfiction is so much easier for me than fiction. I'm writing a very long nonfiction essay now and it's just a pleasure. In fiction, you have to do absolutely everything. You have to make the trees and make the leaves and put all the leaves on the trees. In nonfiction you just describe the tree that was in front of you when whatever happened actually happened. I'm a fiction writer who takes breaks in nonfiction. I'm trying to put together a book of essays but I find it impossible to read my own work again after it's published. That's a problem. I keep thinking, I'll write a few more essays and then I'll read them all. But I don't. I hired a friend to read all my essays and pick the ones for the book. Fortunately I trust her completely.
I also have an idea for a novel, something I'm just playing with in the back of my mind, but it contains charming, courageous children who might as well be orphans so maybe I should just skip it.
Q. Your fiction is fast-paced and leaps off the page as far as plot and action. Are any of your books, especially this one, destined for the screen?
A. Movie deals have wasted a lot of my life and made me a lot of money and produced no actual movies save for a CBS movie of the week of my first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (it reruns on Lifetime Television for Women approximately every 48 hours). I recently had an offer on State of Wonder. I didn't know the people involved and the money wasn't great and I turned it down. I think there's a lot to be said for protecting one's peace of mind (and keeping control of your options on the off-chance that Meryl Streep calls).