A while back, I (Ben) promised a review of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. (I got sidetracked by some non-fiction accounts of life in the Amazon.) Several reviews of this novel have noted its nod to Heart of Darkness, which brings me to a brief sidenote about Heart of Darkness and our educational system:
I read Heart of Darkness in tenth grade, and I hated every page of it. Rereading it many years later, I felt ashamed that this had been my initial reaction. I won’t blame all of it on the student teacher, Mr. Howard, who taught it to us, but I do hope, for his sake and those of his potential students, that Mr. Howard never went on to pursue a teaching career. He greeted our frustration with the text with, first, bemusement, followed by exasperation, anger, condescension and, finally, outright hostility.
Sensing his disgust with our inability to decipher Joseph Conrad, we revolted. Classes became shouting matches. Mr. Howard was given over to long soliloquies as he stared out the window. We were no longer his students, simply audience members of a sad, tragic one act titled, “Mr. Howard And The Twenty-One Intellectual Dwarves.”
What I would tell Mr. Howard now, if I could raise my hand and change the course of my tenth grade education (and perhaps his career trajectory), is that he should have just shown us Apocalypse Now. Not only would we have spent class time watching a (R-rated!) movie; just as importantly, we would have understood Heart of Darkness.
Back to Ann Patchett.
Dr. Anneck Swenson is State of Wonder’s Kurtz, laboring deep in the Amazon jungle on a miracle drug that would extend a woman’s fertility into old age. Dr. Marina Singh is her ex-student, before a mistake during delivery changed her career ambitions and sent her into pharmaceutical research for the same company developing Swenson’s drug. When one of Marina’s colleagues sent to check on the project dies in the jungle, Marina goes after him, waiting in Manaus for her former mentor to turn up. When she does, Swenson dominates the page. She’s a tough, compelling, single-minded and utterly rational force, and meeting her again forces a rather listless Singh to snap into action as well as reconcile her past.
Patchett is a skilled writer, and she does a masterful job painting the Amazon as “the beating heart of nowhere.” There are many surprises in store in State of Wonder, and she dispenses them patiently, all in good time. Marina Singh comes across as a flat character for the first third of the book, but it serves to highlight just how great her transformation is by the end. I had heard several people say they were dissatisfied with the book’s ending. I didn’t see the final twist coming, and though implausible, I found it very satisfying. Certainly more so, I should say, than my first crack at Heart of Darkness.
Nashville recently lost its fine independent bookstore Davis-Kidd Booksellers, where I got my start in bookselling. Patchett, a Nashvillian, is part of a group planning to open Parnassus Books this fall. As Patchett told NPR’s Diane Rehm earlier this year, “I don’t know if I’m opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire, but I can’t live in a city that doesn’t have a bookstore.” For more on Parnassus Books, see here.