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Book Review: “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett

Let’s see if I can make this short and sweet.

I don’t like this book.

If you’d like to read Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” in it’s origional, high- quality version, pick up “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. If you’d like to see the movie version, it’s called “Apocalypse Now”.

“State of Wonder” is nothing more than a failed, shallow knock-off of those masterpieces of travel/adventure fiction and others such as “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”.

The basic story is this. A Minnesota-based scientist dies in the Brazilian Amazon while searching Dr. Swenson who works for a remote tribe that possess a poweful secret. His collegue, Marina, is sent down to bring back his belongings and to find the mysterious scientist. She is haunted by Lariam-induced nightmares about her dead father and….blah, blah, blah. Tiresome forced plot devices. There is even an enigmatic, sexy, young, blonde Australian couple and … Oh … AND a plucky, deaf Short-Round (think “Temple of Doom”) character.

The reviews have labeled this a “stunning”, “haunting” book. I heard a reviewer on NPR say that the author had “outdone herself” with this book.

Balderdash, I say.

Patchett attempted to re-create and update the great ” white man gets eaten by the jungle” narrative and failed miserably. Despite the lovely prose she fails to make us feel it. You just don’t feel the greasy heat, the humidity that is so thick you feel like you’re walking into a swimming pool several degrees higher than your body temperature. You’re told about the dark, mysterious jungle but you can’t see it. You can’t feel it. That is a failure in story-telling.

Then there are the painfully forced characters and plot- devices. The young Australians play no real purpose and the deaf, indian Short-Round (of course his name is Easter …) is just a circus-piece. He might as well have been a dancing dwarf. The unconvincing and supposedly enigmatic Dr. Swenson, opera-loving scientist of the jungle, preaches in her normal speech like no one you will ever meet in real life.

Every plot piece feels painfully contrived. It’s not an original creation. It’s a very frustrating formula.

The praise fortune book is a clear example of how an attractive young author with mediocre story-telling abilities is “appointed” by the publishing industry, chosen to be ” the next best thing”. This is not an industry where quality matters. What matters ? Sales. Once the decision has been made, apparently, the review and publicity machine gets thier marching orders and they dutifully comply.

Look. It’s not a TERRIBLE book. It’s just the ultimate in mediocrity. I’m sorry I spent money on this book. I strongly encourage you NOT to.

Instead, go pick up Joseph Conrad at the used book store.

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