Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder: the Non-fiction Connection

stateI love when books teach me new things or inspire me to learn more about a subject. I equally love it when I can “connect the dots” between books. That was just what happened last week when I read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. The first two thirds of the book read wonderfully, the writing is smooth and the story is interesting. I found the last third a bit disappointing, and I was ready to dismiss the story as unbelievable. But then I remembered David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Suddenly, State of Wonder seemed a little less “out there.”

In State of Wonder, Dr. Annik Swenson is working in the Amazon with a tribe where women don’t undergo menopause. They are able to bear children well into old age. Dr. Swenson has kept the pharmaceutical company that pays for her research in the dark about how close she is to developing a drug that would extend the child-bearing age for women in the first world. So Marina Singh, a research scientist and former student of Dr. Swenson’s, is sent to Brazil to find out the details. She also wants to know what exactly happened to her friend, who had set out on the same mission before her but died in the jungle. Marina eventually finds Dr. Swenson and discovers that the tribe’s women can get pregnant for most of their lives because they regularly chew on trees that are part of a unique micro-ecosystem. There is, of course, more to the story, but this is the point where I started to stumble. People who chew on trees?

3398625The Lost City of Z is David Grann’s wonderful account of legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett. In the early 20th century, Fawcett led a number of expeditions into the Amazon, helping to map a nearly inaccessible part of the world. While everyone around him either got disgustingly sick or almost starved to death, Fawcett seemed invincible. In 1925, he ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of the fabled City of Z and was never heard from again. In the search for Fawcett, a good number of people died, and even Grann, in his attempt to unravel the mystery of what happened to Fawcett, had to admit that the Amazonian jungle—though smaller in square mileage—has lost little of its danger over the last 100 years.

In State of Wonder, I really liked Dr. Swenson. She is a fierce and determined person with a no-nonsense attitude that borders on rudeness. She has given her life to science and research, with seemingly no regret. Unlike other characters, she came to life in this book. In The Lost City of Z, there is a researcher much like her. Grann had a hard time finding him, because he worked deep in the jungle, with little contact to the outside world. Grann also tells of reclusive and combative tribes that don’t hesitate to attack strangers—much like the hostile tribe in State of Wonder. Dr. Swenson and her fellow researchers have to rely on canned food supplies while the natives are doing just fine. Patchett doesn’t give us any details, but Grann describes many unique ways in which native tribes get their food. While he didn’t mention anyone who chews on trees, if he had, I probably would not have dismissed it as silly.

The parallels between the two books helped me accept a concept in State of Wonder that seemed a bit outlandish at first. With Grann’s account in mind, I could even imagine a patch of “magic trees” somewhere in the jungle. The last 30 pages in State of Wonder wrapped everything up in a way that seemed much too rushed and way too neat, but I am still looking forward to reading Patchett’s Bel Canto, which, like State of Wonder, is part of my Women’s Price Project.

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34 comments

  1. I love the connection you found between these two books. I thought The Lost City of Z was really fantastic — I just can never imagine that people actually want to go into the rainforest and spend so much time there. I could not handle it. And I think you’re right, that it points to an idea that the kind of research in Pachett’s book isn’t totally unrealistic, even if the outcomes might seem outlandish. As I read State of Wonder I was thinking more about Heart of Darkness, but I think this pairing might fit even better.

  2. I felt similarly about Bel Canto—generally good, but still somewhat disappointing.

    I gave up on State of Wonder when I first started reading it, but I really like the connections you drew. I may give it another chance sometime. 🙂

  3. This looks quite interesting. I always hate when I’m really into a book and the ending is disappointing. I’m usually a non-fiction reader but I like to throw in fiction every once in a while. This seems like a good one for my list. I think I would like Dr. Swenson too :).

  4. I bought both State of Wonder and Bel Canto at my library’s book sale last year on a recommendation from a friend and I still haven’t read either of them! The premise of this one does sound a bit far-fetched to me and I’m a little worried there will be some bad science, but I’m still excited to give the author a try.

  5. I had a few issues with State of Wonder when I read it and have struggled a little with Ann Patchett’s fiction, although I like her non fiction essays a lot. It’s interesting how your reading was rescued somewhat by the knowledge of another book, love it when that happens and something challenges or changes our own thinking.

    • This is the first Patchett book I’ve read, so I have no comparison. She touched on quite a few ethical dilemmas in this book that were never fully explored; that irritated me a little bit. But not enough to not give her another try. (By the way, I put a request for The Bees in at my library….)

  6. I loved both of these and always get a bit of a thrill when my non-fiction and fiction collide. I think I read these fairly close together and then read Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees not too long after, which has a similar feel, too. All great books!

  7. I liked The Sate of Wonder, but also remember being a bit disappointed in the ending. It was a while ago, but I remember thinking the same as you- that the characters were acting out of character. The setting made up for it, for me, though. The setting is also one of the reasons I loved Euphoria so much. If you haven’t read that one yet, you should give it a try!
    I loved Bel Canto, so I am very curious to hear what you think of it. I found it a bit slow to get into, but loved the rest (I guess the opposite of State of Wonder). The very, very end could go either way, though, depending on your tastes. I was okay with it. Enjoy! 🙂

    • I have Euphoria on my list. Every time I feel like reading it, someone else has it checked out of the library. It seems like people liked Bel Canto a little better than State of Wonder, so I am looking forward to reading it. And now I am curious about the end…

  8. I haven’t read either book, but they both sound like exciting adventures with strong female characters and I think I might check them out. I don’t know why, but I have no problem suspending my disbelief watching movies, but when it comes to books I become impatient very quickly and it takes some really good writing for me to decide whether I will keep going.

  9. I love how you’ve found a connection between these two books, and I’m sure it added to the reading experience. I hope you enjoy Bel Canto – it’s so long since I read it but I can recall the strength of the characterisation.

  10. I love when fiction and nonfiction mesh this way! I had a similar experience reading Neverhome by Laird Hunt and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott last year. I really enjoyed State of Wonder, particularly for the lush descriptions of the rainforest, but I agree that the ending was a bit lacking.

    • I still have not read Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. But it’s been on my list since all the positive mentions it got during Nonfiction November. I can see where it would pair well with Neverhome.

  11. I find that Ann Patchett’s books are often compulsively readable until about the last third or quarter. Her endings don’t seem to be a strong suit and often leave much to be desired. They feel abrupt or forced. But for all that, I still enjoy reading her books!

  12. You enjoyed this one more than I did, I think. I enjoyed her writing, especially the descriptive stuff, but I found the story became too far-fetched for me, and the ending was a real let-down – she had to make all the characters act completely out of character to get it to work. But all reports suggest Bel Canto is a far better book, so I look forward to seeing if your review of it will tempt me… 🙂

    • Yes, it seems like people like Bel Canto better than State of Wonder. And I agree that some of the stuff in State of Wonder was a bit far-fetched. I probably would have enjoyed it less if I hadn’t just listened to The City of Z recently.

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