Our book club met last night to discuss State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. On her own web site, this is how the book is described: “A tale of morality and miracles, science and sacrifice set in the Amazonian jungle, that is both a gripping adventure and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of discovery and love.” Ok, that sounds compelling.
Here is a more helpful summary:
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina’s assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina’s research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend’s death, the state of her company’s future, and her own past.
With this summary in view, I would have to say that I had a mixed response to the novel. I like Patchett as a writer, particularly how she has Marina Singh interact with the environment of the Amazon. When Singh gets off the plane, here is Patchett’s description: “every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.” This brings up the Amazon as a character in the novel. Are there cannibals? Sure. How about an anaconda? You bet. But Patchett does not overdo the Amazon here; she presents it as quite expansive and suffocating, a place where a person can experience some genuine claustrophobia. The heat and the insects — all of it. I read an interview with Patchett in which she described going to the Amazon to conduct her research. She said something like she was there for 10 days, which was about 6 days too many. In other words, you can only do so many days there before you have to get out. She captures that sense of the Amazon in her writing, and so made the novel a good experience for me.
There was also a fascinating discussion of the role of mentors in a person’s life. There is a great exchange between a married couple (one of whom was apparently a former student of the other) about how the husband had looked up to his mentor, including overlooking several personal flaws and infidelity. This had our book club talking about how we view mentors. What struck me here was how much I have benefited from mentors, as none tried to make me in their image. Rather, each helped me develop my potential. I view mentoring similarly — as a process by which a person helps another develop his or her full potential and calling, as understood from the perspective of what God would have that person do and become. The mentor may model some characteristics and personal or professional traits worth emulating, but the mentor does not simply make that person in his or her image; mentoring is not for oneself. But to me mentoring is also not just about the person receiving the mentoring. It is about something beyond both of them. It is tied to transcendent purposes in the life of the one who is responding to his or her sense of calling and vocation. The mentor is also to be humble and obedient to recognize the unique gifts in others, the ways in which God is developing in that person being mentored a path that only that person is going to take.
The other major topic we discussed was actually the role of missions in places like the Amazon. Two of our book club members had been on the mission field more extensively, and they discussed missions in a way that was quite different than anthropologists and others who often look down on missionaries. What I learned is that missionaries like Wycliffe often have a significant impact locally, as they invest in tribal development and, as translators, provide a lexicon that allows for written/documented account of the existence of that tribe that would otherwise be lost. Often the governments support this work, although admittedly they would do without the Christian aspects of it if they could. No one else can do what these groups do, yet they are often looked down upon by writers and anthropologists, and that is picked up in the book, although it is not a major focus at all.
Criticisms had to do with the plot. There were some developments that just didn’t seem to follow, but I won’t go into those details here because some would be spoilers. I’ve read the book twice now — last summer after hearing about it and now this year through our book club. I recommend the book. I enjoyed it and the thoughtful discussion that followed.
Update: We are reading The Space Between Us for our next meeting in August.