Sunday, October 5, 2014

State Of Wonder

Book Review : State Of Wonder
Author : Ann Patchett
My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars

There was a time when I used to read a lot of fiction. The books I liked are generally not considered “literature”, and that does not bother me a bit. I still remember the immense joy I got from reading Frederick Forsyth’s books - the depth of the plot, the suspense that you never knew was there, the painstaking research, the smart structure of the storyline that makes it impossible to put the book down. I slowly lost interest in reading fiction, as my favorite authors couldn’t keep up the quality, maybe because they were getting older.. I couldn’t find new authors of the same caliber, and slowly I became interested in reading only non-fiction, maybe because I am getting older.

Once in a while, I try reading a fiction, but almost always end up dissatisfied. When I saw the glowing reviews of “State Of Wonder”, I had to read it. People magazine thinks "the reader will start re-reading the book upon completion". Time magazine said, "the story speeds along like a literary thriller". Even NPR praised it. The author Ann Patchett has won numerous awards for her books, and this one was a national bestseller.

After reading “State Of Wonder”, I am not only dissatisfied as I was in other cases, but I am also angry - extremely angry - at these deceiving reviews. I know very well that reviews are subjective. I write a lot of them, and they are full of my subjective opinions. This book also has hundreds of five star reviews on Amazon, so I know I am in minority. But I still think, it’s intellectually dishonest to praise this book so much. Because the plot holes and loose ends are not subjective. The factual mistakes are not subjective. When hard to believe situations are not explained, the lack of explanation is not subjective.

Dr Marina Singh works as a research scientist  for a pharmaceutical company. Her co-worker Anders is sent to Amazon, to track down another employee Dr. Swenson, who for many years, has been conducting secret research on a lucrative drug. Unfortunately, Anders dies due to illness, but the letter announcing his death from Dr. Swenson lacks details. Marina is asked by his wife to go to Amazon, to find out what happened. The book is the story of Marina’s journey and her coming to terms with her past. It also makes a feeble attempt at raising some important questions about medical research.

There are positives. Author Ann Patchett has a knack of expressing what Marina felt at that moment. She also manages to create the sense of place. You feel you are transported to the Amazon jungle.

Style, sadly, cannot mask the lack of substance. If you are in a book club, this book will serve very nicely as a launching pad for passionate discussions. Morality of drug research is a tough and troubling topic. But we get to hear only one side of the debate, the views of Dr. Swenson. That’s not enough to support the claim about how the book poses “bioethical arguments”.

The characters are not very likeable. Now, that alone is not reason to dislike the book. I have liked many movies (e.g American Beauty) where not a single character was likeable. But here, the characters are flat, and except Marina, there is hardly any explanation for the behavior of anyone else. The tribe is Amazon is in awe of Dr Swenson, and meekly submit themselves to her experiments, even though she cannot speak their language. Why? Why do they respect or fear her? No, you won’t find it explained.

The factual errors are mind boggling. First a small one - in Marina’s dream, she finds herself with her Indian father in Calcutta where she hears Hindi all around her. No, Ms Patchett, it’s very unlikely. They speak Bengali there. Maybe it’s a small slip. Then Marina, who is a doctor, keeps taking Lariam as prevention against Malaria, in spite of the nightmares. I am not a doctor, but I know that there is an alternative called Doxycycline. I took it when I went to Kenya. Shouldn’t she have tried that? Dr. Swenson runs a medical research facility in the heart of Amazon jungle. Where does she get the electricity to keep the freezers running? Dr Swenson also realizes in the end that there is a reason why nature doesn’t want women to get pregnant at a very old age. Really? For a doctor who has been researching women fertility for decades, seeing old women in a tribe going through child birth as her research subjects, this comes as a realization when she herself becomes old? As you can see, this is neither nit picking, nor subjective complaints.

The book is no thriller. It’s extremely boring in many sections, and simply takes forever to proceed. Unlike the Time magazine’s claim that it reaches "a tremendous crescendo", what it reaches is height of unbelievability. The author succeeds in maintaining the suspense, but when it’s revealed, it’s just revealed. Then the book winds down in 15 pages, without an iota of explanation as to what exactly happened.

The correct title for the book should have been “State Of Unexplained”. It’s high on feeling, and low on thinking. Of course, I do not recommend this book at all. I am forever going to be suspicious of reviews written in all the magazines and newspapers.

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