State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – Book Review


State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – Book Review

I saw some good reviews, when my book club picked this book.  But I am less than thrilled.  I believe, a good story line with potential, has been marred by sloppy research, characters lacking depth and complexity, superfluous relationships, and misrepresentation of science.  Here is the review.

STOP —– STOP —– STOP —– STOP —–STOP —– STOP                       Spoiler Alert…………… below.

There was no complexity and depth in the characters and in there is no depth in most of the relationships. Marina Singh, previously a medical doctor, successful research scientist, supposedly hand picked to go in search of a lost colleague, in the Amazon forest (really?), seems amazingly naive and annoyingly obsequious in accepting assignments and requests that she clearly is unhappy about. Doctor Swenson, dedicated to science, who everyone looks up to, in awe, is easily forgiven her constant moralizing and put-downs, her abduction of a child, turning innocent people of the tribe into research experiments by exposing them to malaria carrying mosquitoes, all in the name of science! Again, really! Many of the relationships are equally superfluous, including that between Singh and Mr. Fox, between Swenson and Dr. Rapp, between Rapp and his students (one of whom caught malaria and was simply dropped so Dr. Rapp can continue his research), between Anders and little child (Anders wanted the world to save the child and it only took a few seconds, for him to offer the child for a trade), and between Anders and his wife Karen (Karen seems to emerge as the ONLY person, besides Easter, with honest and unconditional love for another).

I have more stupid questions about the plots and the sub plots! Although Singh is obsequious and accepts every unwanted assignment (going to the Amazon, overstaying, getting her hair braided, doing surgery in the most unsterile environment, without even attempting to turn the baby as her instinct told her to do, more overstaying, agreeing to lie about the purpose of the research), and yet she is successful in her findings, in her competence as a medical doctor, a profession she had quit, in wrestling and cutting through an anaconda, in tracing a lost individual, through navigation in the unknown waters of the Amazon, and more. Singh refuses help of other competent adults and looses the child! She is successful in finding someone based on one woman’s ramblings about having spotted someone, and then she trades in a child for it all! Really? And why was Singh eating the bark anyway? Why was there a random Australian couple simply there to guard the gates and restrict access to other members of the pharmaceutical company from one of its own researchers, while being on the payroll of the same pharmaceutical company? I have more stupid questions, but what’s point?

Let’s talk a bit about science. This is a story of a lost tribe with an ability to have tons of babies, who are also immune to malaria, and yet they do not experience population explosion! A run-away scientist conducts brutal experiments on native people, allowing them to catch malaria. How is she going to document this work for the said pharma company? And without prior permission from the FDA, and without complete documentation, there is no possibility of any drugs being authorized for use. In the story, a tribal woman gets her body cut open, on a dirty floor, next to sneezing babies and elderly on a hammock, and yet does not die of infection, even without antibiotics! We in the West, with our obsession to cleanliness, must seem like hypochondriacs, in comparison. The devoted scientist, after years of research on fertility medicine, in her “old” age, decides to try the fertility medicine on herself, then equally on a whim, gives up, because it did not work effectively on her (what kind of scientist relies on “one” sole sample), and because, she has a sudden change of heart, and does not wish to unleash the misery of childbearing on the world (who is she to decide, what constitutes misery, having children or not being able to have them)? This book is published in 2011. By this time, the medical community (including the Gates Foundation) is very much interested in finding cure for malaria and many other third world diseases. Obviously the sloppy research by the author, on which the book is based, concludes, on the assumption that the world will have no interest in a cure for malaria and something devious needs to be done, to achieve this laudable goal.

“State of Wonder” has a good story line, it is reasonably engaging, and had a potential to be an excellent book. But sloppy research has killed it. There are some good questions posed, how does one extract whatever raw materials one requires for scientific inquiry without destroying the habitat; how do the big pharma companies find cures based on herbal medicine and ancient wisdom and market those while preserving the life and livelihood of the indigenous people where it originates, how do pharma companies protect their preliminary findings and keep their research under wraps, until it is absolutely ready to share the findings? Sadly, the author does not linger too much on these interesting, real, and though-provoking concerns but rushes in to provide half-baked solutions, including a run-away scientist doing research for years in an obscure place, not answerable to anyone including the company CEO, while keeping the expense account current.

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