Saturday, October 20, 2012

299 (2012 #44). State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett,
read by Hope Davis

I listened to this audiobook mostly because it won the 2012 Audie Award for Literary Fiction, and a little because the book had been (hesitantly) suggested for possible discussion in my local book club.

First, the good.  The audiobook is totally deserving of the Audie Award. Actress Hope Davis gives an outstanding performance, creating voices for the main characters, Marina Singh and Annick Swenson, that reflect their personalities (mostly submissive and mostly domineering, respectively).

The artwork on the cover of the novel (and audiobook) is gorgeous.  In an interview, author Ann Patchett said, "When I first started writing this book, I came downstairs one night and found my husband listening to “Horowitz at Carnegie Hall." The album cover has a very lush filigreed border....the exact the feeling I wanted for my book--half jungle, half Baroque period. When I was finished writing the novel I sent the album to my editor, who sent it to the art department. They understood exactly what I was talking about."

Now, the bad.  In the same interview, Patchett admits to disliking the Amazon.  "I absolutely loved the Amazon for four days. It was gorgeous and unfamiliar and deeply fascinating. Unfortunately, I stayed there for ten days. There are a lot of insects in the Amazon, a lot of mud, surprisingly few vegetables, too many snakes. You can’t go anywhere by yourself, which makes sense if you don’t know the terrain, but I enjoy going places by myself. I can see how great it would be for a very short visit, and how great it would be if you lived there and had figured out what was and wasn’t going to kill you, but the interim length of time isn’t great."

And that's the heart of the problem with this book.  I felt Patchett's research was sloppy.  Everything from the premise that a pharmaceutical company would continue to pay all expenses for a rogue scientist (Swenson) who refused to stay in contact with them, to Marina's preposterous trip to the Amazon to look for the remains of her coworker (walking around the jungle in FLIP-FLOPS??) was just unbelievable.

I could go on and on with examples.  The idea that a drug company wouldn't support a malaria vaccine because there's no profit in it is crazy - the military would pay big bucks for such a vaccine.  Dr. Swenson taught at Johns Hopkins four days a week and then went to the Amazon for a long weekend to conduct research. She then took the "red eye" back to the States to teach the following Monday. Not realistic (if even possible). A well-equipped lab in the middle of the jungle, with generators to power freezers and computers?  Rather ridiculous.

In the same interview mentioned above, Patchett says her good friend Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the awful Eat Pray Love) was writing a novel set in the Amazon about the same time as she was, but Gilbert abandoned her novel.  Later they compared notes, and found they "had remarkably similar story lines, to the point of being eerie.  I thought this must be because it was an incredibly banal idea and we had both come up with a generic Amazon novel, but then you [Gilbert] told me that ideas fly around looking for homes, and when the idea hadn’t worked out with you it came to me."  If that's the case, Patchett should hope none of Gilbert's ideas ever land on her again.

I've read most of Patchett's other books - Bel Canto, Truth & Beauty, The Magician's Assistant, and The Patron Saint of Liars - I especially liked the latter.  Unfortunately, this book does not measure up to the others, and I won't be recommending it to my book club, especially with its unlikeable and unrealistic characters.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public library respectively.]

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