Forums Club Ed Book Club State of Wonder discussion

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    • #92809
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Hello, everyone! Who’s with me today? We’ll be discussing Ann Patchett’s STATE OF WONDER in this thread.

      I’m shocked to say (given our track record) that I enjoyed this one and didn’t have a lot of “wow, really?” moments.

    • #92810
      Jake Nicholls
      Participant

      Hello, I’m here! Yes, I enjoyed this one on the whole, too, and I’m looking forward to discussing it.

    • #92811
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Hi, Jake! I liked a number of things, such as the contrast of the setting (Minnesota v Brazil). I actually know Minnesota pretty well, so I had a few “Oh, I’ve been to Crookston!” moments but I think the setting would still be effective for readers unfamiliar with the area. Do you agree?

      • #92813
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Yes, absolutely—I think that did work really well. I’ve never been to Minnesota or Brazil, but the contrast between a cold climate, urban/suburban setting and the claustrophobic descriptions of the heat and the jungle in Brazil was very effective. I think this was further highlighted in the contrast between the clinical settings, i.e. the lab in Minnesota vs. the improvised set-up in Brazil.

      • #92814
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Yes, I could feel those bugs crawling on me!

    • #92812
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Other things I enjoyed:

      The author’s ability to characterize briefly and pungently–Dr. Swenson’s letter is so revealing about who she is.

      The author’s ability to create open questions that draw us along: “Karen Eckman sat in a two-story brick colonial thinking her husband would be coming home as soon as he could make Dr. Swenson listen to reason.” !!! Now I want to know what’s going on.

      The author typically uses present tense for flashbacks while the forward action of the story is told in immediate past tense. I think this may be the first time I’ve encountered such an approach and I really liked it, as it helps address an issue with flashbacks (that they remove any sense of immediacy from the story).

      • #92815
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Dr. Swenson was such a strong character! Even though she’d probably terrify me in real life, I really enjoyed reading about her and the interactions she had with other characters. I did find it a bit hard to connect with Marina because she was often very passive, but in the context of scenes with Dr. Swenson, Marina’s behaviour made a lot more sense.

      • #92818
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        The characterization of Dr. Swenson was spectacular, I thought. At first I had a knee-jerk “what an awful person” reaction but gradually I came to understand her better and my reaction became more nuanced. She’s grotesque and pathetic and inspiring all at once.

      • #92831
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Marina was a bit more of a cipher for me, but I did like seeing her take a more active role in her fate as the story progressed. And I wished Dr. Swenson could have shown her the understanding and reassurance she provides later (after Marina does the c-section up in the trees) in the beginning, when Marina made her “mistake” and gave up obstetrics. It felt bittersweet and true to life.

      • #92834
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        I found Marina frustratingly passive for a large chunk of the story—but on reflection, I think it was more that she felt compelled by duty (like Dr. Swenson says towards the end: if she gave Marina a task that meant she had to stay, she would stay). I wonder if there’d be a way to give her some more active choices towards the beginning of the novel without changing this duty-bound aspect of her character—or whether it works well enough as it is?

      • #92835
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Yes, I think that’s a hard one–she is duty-bound, that’s her nature, and so she’s going to go along with what her authorities tell her to do. But there’s a difference between “duty-bound” and “passive” so it seems at least possible that she could be a more active character.

        I mean, there are plenty of reluctant heroes that I don’t consider passive even though they’re not champing at the bit to undertake the journey.

      • #92837
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Although I do wonder if that isn’t part of the effect the author is striving for: Marina is so passive that we naturally assume she will fall in with Dr. Swenson’s plans for her, yet it is in working with Dr. Swenson that she develops the courage to reject that “duty.”

      • #92860
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Yes, that’s an interesting point. Perhaps the change in Marina’s character is more compelling precisely because she started out so passive.

        I would have liked to see how her relationship with Mr. Fox changed, because I didn’t really get a sense of it when he visited the jungle. If Marina had started thinking of him as Jim towards the end, I would have felt like she was in a position to change the power dynamic there. As it was, I got the impression that she might just slip back into her deferential ’employee’ role in their relationship.

      • #92817
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        As for using present tense for flashbacks—I agree that that worked really well. I was especially impressed by that scene on the plane, where Marina is battling with the Lariam-induced dreams, plus the major flashback, plus the present goings-on on the plane!

      • #92832
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Yes, that was a tour de force!

        Though, overall, I could have done with fewer scenes regarding nightmares. They felt really repetitious and boring after a while, though I get that part of the hideousness of the nightmares is how repetitious they are.

      • #92836
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        It was mildly interesting to see how the context of the nightmares changed over time, while the actual ‘content’ of losing her father stayed the same—but, yes, there were more than enough in-depth descriptions of each iteration! I was expecting some sort of resolution to the nightmare ‘subplot’, but I suppose that (a) the dreams were just another way of increasing the claustrophobic atmosphere, and (b) it’s more true to life that these sort of things are stuck in your subconscious mind forever!

      • #92838
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        I think I would have liked the nightmare subplot better if Marina had been the one to “hallucinate” the vision of the father (who turns out to be Anders) rather than the friend whose name I’ve suddenly forgotten being the one to see him.

        Dr. Swenson could still say, “Wait a minute, you saw a white man and didn’t wonder who it was?” and plot events could resolve as they do.

        But maybe that would dovetail too neatly.

      • #92854
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        That could have been interesting, but I think it might have taken a bit of manoeuvring to make that work without it feeling overly convenient for the plot (also, I think Marina’s father was Indian—so something else might have been needed). As it was, I think the sheer unexpected coincidence of that friend (whose name I have also forgotten—Belinda?) seeing Anders came across as fairly realistic—if very lucky!—rather than convenient, because no one was actually looking for him at the time.

      • #92855
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Yes, you’re right, all good points!

    • #92816
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      I did feel there were places the author tried to lead readers by the nose a little too much: “Oh, Anders! To have been sent off on a mission you were never right for. To be regarded after your death as an error of judgment.”

      That’s already in the text and we’ve already reacted to the horror of Swenson thinking of Anders’ death as a mere inconvenience to her.

    • #92833
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      And while I liked the allusion to the Orpheus myth, perhaps it didn’t need to be dragged out into the open for us to consider.

      Same with Easter; the name is perhaps too on-the-nose. Let the reader discover the resurrected man theme themselves; we don’t need the sacrifice of Easter to be named Easter.

      • #92839
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        I agree—the opera scene was great (I loved that Dr. Swenson just appeared out of the darkness and the others had to endure the whole opera knowing she was right behind them!) but it did go a little too far in the explanation of its relevance.

        Speaking of Easter, what did you think of the ending? I didn’t like it at all—I’m not sure what it was, but a lot seemed to happen out of the blue, and it didn’t feel much like the resolution I was expecting.

      • #92840
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        I agree, the ending was a bit of a meh for me. It seemed a little too lucky that Anders isn’t dead (why don’t the cannibals kill him?). And then I felt that if Easter has to be the sacrifice, let him be a real sacrifice; it’s an awful decision for Anders (and Marina) to make and it should feel awful, and unresolved, and a burden. But they seem to get expiation for this sin when we find out the Swenson told Easter’s family that he was dead when he really wasn’t. In other words, it’s not really so bad that he has been returned to his family.

        Why not let it be really bad? It could have been a stunning moment of cowardice and capitulation but that’s ruined by all the retconning.

      • #92856
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        At first, I thought Marina’s lack of reaction was shock and/or denial, but she never seemed to reach a point where she felt really terrible about it. And the fact that Anders was telling it as a story when they got back to Manaus made him seem blasé about it, too!

      • #92858
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Yes, it was a horrible thing to do and yet it doesn’t really seem to affect either Anders or Marina, despite that fact that they both wanted to bring him home with them. It’s not that they should have brought him home, just that if they cared so much about him to want to bring him home, I would expect them to have a reaction to his loss.

        It feels like the author is complicit in sweeping it under the rug rather than laying the question bare.

    • #92853
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      I also felt like the moment where Marina releases Easter from the snake served as a beautiful counterpoint to her “mistake,” but then she also successfully does a c-section up in the trees, and with Dr. Swenson as well, which turns a moment of redemption mundane. We don’t need all these c-sections to see that Marina has grown and changed in the jungle.

      • #92857
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Yes, the snake scene was really well-written and vivid!

        What did you think about Dr. Swenson’s surgery happening off-page? On the one hand, I don’t think another surgery scene was necessary, but on the other, surely it was a massive emotional moment for Marina—the coming together of multiple threads? I felt like there was a big build-up to it, but we never got to see its emotional impact on Marina, because the aftermath was immediately replaced by the whole Anders situation.

      • #92859
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        I agree; I think another surgery scene wasn’t needed but to treat it as hardly worth mention robs the story of a potentially important moment of synthesis, where several story threads come together.

    • #92861
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      I enjoyed the moments of humor and irony throughout but I do think the author lost her way a little with that ending. Jake, you mentioned it not being what you “expected.” What did you feel would be more in line with the story that went before?

      • #92874
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        I’m not sure, to be honest. My expectations were continually changing with each reveal about the scientists’ work and Dr. Swenson’s pregnancy, and then Mr. Fox turning up out of the blue. I felt like these plot developments were building towards Marina choosing to stay in Brazil—especially when Dr. Swenson suggested that Marina would take over her role. I had also (I’m sorry to say) more or less completely forgotten about Anders! So, although that plot point obviously ties in with the bigger picture, it felt a bit ‘tacked on’, in a way.

    • #92875
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Yes, I was more interested in how Marina would resolve her relationship with Dr. Swenson than in what happened to Anders. And I guess “she fulfilled her duty” is one way of looking at the ending but it’s not the interesting part of the story.

      The whole “Lost Horizon” feel was interesting to me–this world of eternal(ish) youth hidden away in the depths of the rain forest, at risk should it be revealed to the outside world–and I think it merited more of an ending than it received. As it turns out, Dr. Swenson has decided that women don’t need this fertility treatment and everyone, including Marina, goes along with that.

      Certainly I understand this perspective (zero interest in becoming pregnant at age 73) but instead of opening that question up, the author again just shuts the door on it. Dr. Swenson decrees it and so it shall be; instead of fertility, we will have a malaria vaccine. Yet it’s not a question of one or the other.

      • #92888
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Hm, yes—that’s very true. If you frame it as a journey to discover a hidden world and its secrets, the ending does feel very anticlimactic. Marina earns the knowledge, and then does nothing with it—she just leaves it up to other people to decide what to do with it, as you said.

    • #92889
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Jake, I was thinking about reading Celeste Ng’s LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE for next time. (That would be May 6.) Are you up for that? Hopefully Kendra and others will join us next month but I’m wondering if we should perhaps put book club on hiatus for a bit?

      • #92890
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Yes, I’m definitely up for that! Hopefully some more people can join us—it would be a shame to put the book club on hiatus.

      • #92903
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Okay, then let’s plan on it. Thanks!

      • #92904
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Excellent—I look forward to it. Thanks for another interesting discussion!

    • #92917
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Thank you, Jake! Looking forward to further discussions.

    • #93858
      Rachel Poe
      Participant

      Ack! Sorry I missed the discussion, especially after I suggested the book! I logged on the morning of April 1 before the discussion started and then forgot to come back until now.

      I have really enjoyed hearing your insights. Is it too late to continue the discussion? I’ll just add one quick point. The reason I suggested the book, why I was interested to hear developmental editors take on the book, is that I found the writing to be amazing, each sentence beautifully crafted, but the story, especially the ending, to be very…what in the worlds is happening and why should I care?

    • #93869
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Rachel, I did feel that I wanted more from the story/storytelling but I definitely enjoyed this one more than others we’ve read recently! I think Marina is essentially a passive character so it’s hard to say that she’s grown or changed or even that she was offered growth/change but refused it, so at the end I was left with a meh feeling of “what was that about?” I mean, Anders is eventually revealed to be at heart a selfish man, but at least he has more energy and drive than Marina ever does.

      I feel like one part of the story, Marina coming to terms with what she gave up when she left obstetrics after her “mistake,” had a lot of promise but ultimately was too muddled. She gives up surgery and then in the rain forest suddenly does a bunch of surgeries successfully and then . . . what? Who cares? What does any of it mean?

      So it was a bit of a cipher for me. But it did carry me along and entertain me, so I didn’t hate it.

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