October 18, 2014KR BlogUncategorized

Online Book Discussion of Ann Patchett’s STATE OF WONDER, Week Two

Sergei and Natalie have offered rich and complex readings of STATE OF WONDER over the last couple of weeks, with some emphasis on the resonance of myth, of the struggle for identity, and the terror of abandonment.  I’d like to point to a (rather obvious) recurring challenge posed by the novel: the urgency of making moral choices, of doing the right thing–especially when the costs may be considerable.

Moral choice, of course, is common to most novels.  Indeed, the struggle for individual identity, not to mention dramatic tension that possesses high stakes, very often involves moral conundrums.  But it’s rare to have such choices rise to the surface of the plot–and characters’ consciousness, so incessantly as in STATE OF WONDER.  Right from the start, Marina’s decision to go to the Amazon is hardly merely practical (no matter what Mr. Fox may try and have her believe).  Surely she feels a personal loyalty to Anders, but her connection with Karen is startling in the speed of its appearance and its power over her.  She largely decides to make this difficult, uncomfortable, even dangerous journey as a kind of stand-in for Karen.  That surely is a moral choice. Certainly we can imagine her declining, suffering a little guilt rather than becoming an intimate of large snakes.

Likewise, her decision to perform an emergency c-section years earlier, against her once-and-future mentor’s (Dr. Swenson’s) orders, is both a professional one and somehow much more, resulting in a greater moral failure as far Marina is concerned.  It is her own choice afterwards to abandon (a mighty big word in this novel) the profession and turn to a safer science, a safer identity, a distant and chilly land.

Of course, moral dilemmas are posed not merely for the characters, but by the novel itself.  How “moral” is it for Dr. Swenson to perform her research–no matter how “nobly” intended–while using the Lakashi as guinea pigs? She certainly seems unbothered.  Ought we to be?  How scientifically responsible is the dual search for a super malarial drug and the mixed blessing of female fertility unlimited by age? And so on–there are many other examples.

Once Marina leaves Manaus for the Lakashi settlement in the wilderness, choices have even greater consequence. She learns that Anders’s death has been greatly exaggerated–feverish and disoriented, he wandered off and was, essentially, abandoned by Dr. Swenson.  Dr. Swenson also bullies Marina into performing another emergency c-section on a Lakashi woman, successful this time, that troubles Marina with its moral implications on several levels.

And of course, this sets the stage–both for the reader and for Dr. Swenson herself, who seems to want to observe whether Marina’s skills have remained up to par–for a final birth by surgery late in the novel.  Another moral choice.  Not to mention, which I won’t, a moral choice of one more, terrible abandonment at the end of the novel.  On to Week Three!

Click here for the next post in the series: Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Week Three