State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

state of wonder

The reviews on the back of this book are overwhelmingly positive. Of course, if I was publishing a book I would put all the nice things that people said about it all over the cover, but there are about twenty people/organisations saying something along the lines of “wow!” and nothing at all about what the story is about.

I see why they cannot say too much about the story, it would spoil it. A scientist and her team are working on something big in the Amazonian jungle, another scientist goes out there, bad stuff happens, another scientist (the protagonist) goes out there, then things really kick off. Unfortunately, the protagonist does not get out to the jungle until exactly halfway through the book. Then it does get good. But for the first half of the book I kept checking back on all these reviews, bold claims such as “the best book of the summer” and “a masterpiece.” Also, the reviews suggest lots of complicated science, and I am by no means a scientist and I did not find it hard to follow.

I did not love it as much as all these professional critics seemed to. There are a couple of twists towards the end, one of which is very easy to see coming, otherwise, what would have been the point. There is a well-written, exciting and harrowing birth scene.

There are several hugely controversial and interesting moral questions that this research brings up, but Patchett chooses to avoid discussing them too much. The scientists are in the Amazon primarily to investigate the phenomena of a tribe where the woman are able to bear children until the end of their lives. And they do, the poor things. I am going to ignore the plot-hole that if this were the case then this tribe would have taken over the Amazon (if not the world) by now because they are much better at reproducing than the rest of us. None of the characters really question whether we should be interfering with untouched societies so that older women in the West can have babies if they feel like it. The story does address whether this is just a matter of functioning eggs of if there are other factors to be considered in a woman in her seventies becoming pregnant, even if the issue of child-rearing in someone’s seventies is not discussed.

The tribe are also testing some of the drugs in development. They do not know what they are testing and the are apparently being paid in Cokes. Our protagonist expresses mild discomfort at this situation, but that is all. We very briefly discuss the issue of whether a drug company might fund research into fertility for old ladies, but not something that could cure a devastating disease in the third world. So many interesting subjects are brought up, then dropped.

The reviews raised my expectations right up, so I was disappointed. The story is unusual but left me unimpressed. This does raise several excellent discussion points, though, and would enjoy talking about these issues at a book group.

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