A Tale of Two Women: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

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When author Ann Patchett is asked to speak at universities, she says one very specific question comes up again and again.

“Next year we want to invite a contemporary author who’s written a book about strong female characters and it’s not a story about them falling in love and it’s not a story about them being victimized, can you recommend that book,’ and I couldn’t, I couldn’t think of that book.”

So the best-selling, award-winning author decided to write it herself.

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State of Wonder almost completely revolves around women. The central figures are female scientists. The plot hinges on research that could potentially freeze the biological clock in its most fertile hour. Patchett, a Nashville native, says the protagonist also shares at least one key characteristic with her. “I have been a lot of places. I have had a lot of really exciting experiences out in the world, but I always want to be home. I’m always somebody who’s coming home.”

In State of Wonder, Dr. Marina Singh is cut from the same cloth.

“She’s from Minnesota, she loves it” Patchett says. “She just wants to stay in her lab and be left alone.”

Marina had once been on track to be an obstetrician, but for her, the unrelenting pace and near-impossible demands of med school didn’t work to build confidence and swagger.“It made Mirena more of a mouse instead of less. She went farther into herself, the experience was so terrifying for her that in the end she decided not to practice medicine with patients.”

Instead, she sought comfort in the relatively quiet life of pharmaceutical research.

One intimidating woman loomed over Marina’s med school experience. Dr. Annick Swenson was domineering, insensitive, and secretive. And after more than a decade in the lab, Marina’s employer sends her on a search for that former teacher. It’s a quest that takes her far from the cold of Minnesota deep into the Brazilian rainforest.

 

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 they 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.’

 

(exceprt from State of Wonder)

There’s an unsettling sense of being enveloped by a strange world that only grows-and becomes increasingly bizarre. The book is drawing comparisons to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Patchett freely admits was one of her influences.

Her Dr. Swenson has an intensity and gravitational pull that’s very similar to Conrad’s Mister Kurtz. In both the iconic tale-and its film retelling, Apocalypse Now-Kurtz is worshiped as a cruel god in a remote jungle village where people quite often are driven insane. But State of Wonder’s Dr. Swenson is more cold than cruel; she’s consumed by science rather than violence.

Patchett says she was after a different sort of horror: in the remote tribal village where the journey ends, women never stop having babies, no matter how long they live.

She may have been a little too convincing.

“It’s very fantastical and far-fetched,” Patchett says, “and yet I keep getting interviewed by people who say ‘I googled the Lakashi tribe and I can’t find them,’ which I guess means it’s the death of fiction in a way.”

But at the heart of it all, Patchett says she mostly just wanted to tell the story of a student and her teacher, a pair of strong women.

State of Wonder is currently on the New York Times list of best-selling fiction. It’s Ann Patchett’s sixth novel. She also wrote Bel Canto, The Magician’s Assistant, and The Patron Saint of Liars.

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