Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ann Patchett marries commercial and literary fiction in my dream novel

State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett

A researcher enters the Amazon in search of a missing explorer and on the hunt for a miracle drug. As a life-long fan of science and adventure thrillers, I’ve read that novel any number of times. And I liked it each and every time. It’s a story that never grows old, as far as I’m concerned. However, even in my most far-fetched literary mash-up daydreams, I never thought I’d see novelist Ann Patchett entering that verdant territory!

What Patchett has created is essentially my dream novel, marrying the best of my beloved thrillers with a gorgeous and substantive literary work. In some ways, the novel feels like half of one thing and half the other due to the way the story is structured. It’s told through the eyes of Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher headquartered in Minnesota. When it is learned that her lab partner, Anders Eckman, unexpectedly died on a trip to the Brazilian jungle, both his widow and her boss (and lover) entreat Marina to follow his path into the jungle. The widow wants answers, and the boss wants the job Anders started to be finished. And that job is to find out what is going on out in the field with researcher Annick Swenson, the renowned but difficult doctor who was once Marina’s mentor.

In the first half of the novel, the action is stalled. There’s a lot of waiting for events to transpire. This allows plenty of time for Patchett to set the premise, exposit the background, and richly develop her characters—for as much as plot drives the novel, the characters’ relationships are always at the heart of the story. Around the time that both Marina and the reader have had about as much waiting as they’re going to take, the second half of the novel springs into action. And I do mean action! It’s exotic jungle adventure at its pulpiest best! As beautifully-written as it is, this part of the story is truly plot-driven. Patchett took me delightfully by surprise more than once, yet even when she caught me off guard, I could look back and see her carefully laid foundation. It’s really masterfully constructed.

A lot happens towards the end of the novel. Some may find the conclusion too neat, but for me it was perfect. Now if only John Irving would write a techno-thriller, my life would be complete!

NOTE:  I caught Ann on tour for this book, and will be posting some video footage from the event, hopefully later today.

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