State of Wonder

21 Jun

I love Ann Patchett. I didn’t know I loved Ann Patchett, but really I think I do.

She’s one of those authors who have crept up on me.  I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of her and then I started coming across Bel Canto a few years ago, and it became one of those books that I ended up having to read, or it felt like it would keep cropping up in my life until I did. But let’s face it, it was no hardship to read it was it? If you haven’t been there yet, just buy it this weekend and find a comfy spot and start reading. You’ll thank me.

Then I saw Ann Patchett at the Book Festival in Edinburgh a few years ago. She was with another author, Valerie Martin I think, and I have a feeling that it was the other author I was initially interested in. Anyway, I no longer recall why I was quite so determined to see this event… out of around 800 events with world class authors, thinkers, politicians, commentators, illustrators, historians, philosophers, scientists, et al why would it be this one that I actually go to?  You see, although I worked at the world’s largest (and possibly greatest) book festival for a number of years my attendance at live literature events was woefully low. But I read a lot, and had a great time, so no regrets!

Anyway, back to Ann P. I bought her novel ‘Run’ off the back of seeing her in conversation with Valerie Martin. And it didn’t disappoint either.

So, when I saw that State of Wonder was shortlisted for the Orange, I knew I had to read it. That was all I knew about State of Wonder though – it was written by Ann P and had been shortlisted for the Orange prize. So, two good reasons to read it really.

It’s interesting when you start reading a book with no real idea of ‘what it’s about’. Especially if you read on an e-reader and so don’t see even the front cover as a clue, or the blurb on the back to give you an idea of what might be within. I realise that ‘what it’s about’ is often not what makes a book great – recently I have read about an orphan, shopping malls, the life of Achilles, a second marriage, a child in a poor estate in south London, and so on….

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting a research scientist from a large pharmaceutical company to shlep off to the Amazon to try to get a major research project back on track, and find out what happened to her colleague who had been despatched to do the same job some weeks earlier. But State of Wonder isn’t just about any of those things, is it? It will be about different things to different people I’m sure, but for me it’s about where you belong, and about loss and being lost. And found. And about parenthood. It’s about dreams. And nightmares. About ideals and compromise; about hopes, dreams and desires. It’s beautifully written, evoking the intense heat and sheer ‘foreign-ness’ of arriving in a town on the Amazon. The main characters are all women and all strong women, but each with their own vulnerabilities. Ann P is so good at drawing characters, people you feel you know from the first encounter with them, and then as you read, you just get to know them better.

I studied science many years ago. In my naivety at school I had hoped to be a research scientist, discovering the cures for all the world’s ills, or at least cancer (AIDS hadn’t appeared in our lives at that point. Yes, I’m that old!). So, I studied for a degree in Medicinal Chemistry. And quickly realised that I would never work for a large pharmaceutical company and would never discover any cures. I’d already worked out that scientific research probably wasn’t my vocation in life (really? I have to do exactly the same experiment over and over and over again every day for weeks and weeks and weeks just tweaking at the different components and reporting on any changes? How dull). But when the pharma companies started the ‘milk round’ of recruitment of fresh young graduates the remaining vestiges of that enthusiastic naivety and hope for the future died. They were oh so proud of a drug they had produced which reduced the symptoms of ulcers (and therefore made them lots of $$$ from stressed American businessmen). In the very next sentence they told us they were cancelling all research into a drug which had the potential in the future to eradicate a third world disease (was it cholera? Malaria? Or something altogether different, I can’t recall). But it would never make them any money. So the research was being pulled.

State of Wonder reminded me of my earlier self, and the erosion of my state of wonder. But I’m glad I’m not a research scientist. I would have been pretty rubbish at it, and I never looked good in a white coat anyway.

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