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A Study in Contrasts:
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder
Jennifer L. Miller

Minnesota can be a miserable place in the winter. Gray skies, feet of snow, and subzero temperatures all contributed to a New York reporter’s opinion in 1885 that Minnesota was “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation,” and many of the state’s residents undoubtedly share this opinion during the long winter months. But there’s also a very different side to winter in Minnesota—a side to all the the snow and the cold that creates an opportunity to have some fun. Perhaps the best example of this is the St. Paul Winter Carnival, an event first held in 1886 and established as a yearly tradition in 1946. The treasure hunt, fireworks, ice sculpting, and many other rituals and traditions that are part of this festival show that there is certainly fun to be had during these dark months of the year.

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Understanding the contrasts inherent in the state of Minnesota is key to understanding Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder for two reasons. First of all, geographic place plays a key role in the novel. Since Minnesota is one of the primary settings, understanding the geography and weather of the state provides a helpful sense of grounding in the places of the novel. But secondly, the idea of contrast between places, or contrast between two different incarnations of a place, or maybe even just the idea of being in between, is a key theme throughout Patchett’s novel. Before even delving into the book, it is important to recognize that Minnesota itself can be both a dreary and gray place and a state of wonder.

Patchett’s focus on contrast is clear from the very first pages. The story begins in early spring in Eden Prairie, a suburb of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Patchett writes, “Outside the snow had been falling in wet clumps long enough to bury every blade of new spring grass. The crocuses she had seen only that morning, their yellow and purple heads straight up from the dirt, were now frozen as solid as carp in the lake” (9). Here we have the contrast between winter and spring and, even more importantly, a moment that captures the transition between the two.

State of Wonder tells the story of Marina Singh, a forty-two-year-old woman who works for a pharmaceutical company called Vogel. Marina is both an MD and a PhD. She left her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins four years into a five-year program, and instead, spent three more years in school to get her PhD in pharmacology. Marina herself is someone who feels caught in between two places. She is the daughter of a white mother and an Indian father, and her childhood was marked by her trips to India to visit her father. As someone with darker skin living in Minnesota—the land of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants—Marina is frequently asked, “Where are you from?”

Even though she is racially marked as an outsider, Marina loves Minnesota. The novel tells us, “Marina was from Minnesota. No one ever believed that. At the point when she could have taken a job anywhere she came back because she loved it here. This landscape was the one she understood, all prairie and sky” (31). It is clear that at the beginning of the novel, Marina views Minnesota as a state of wonder indeed.

Early in the story, Marina learns that she must travel from Minnesota to a very different place. Anders Eckman, her co-worker has traveled down to the Amazon to check on the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson, who was Marina’s attending doctor during her residency and who now is a researcher working for Vogel on developing a fertility drug. While in the jungle, according to a very brief letter from Dr. Swenson, Anders had developed a fever and died, and was buried “in keeping with his Christian traditions” (4). Anders’s wife, Karen, is completely unsatisfied with this explanation, and asks Marina to go down to Brazil to find out what really happened. This question of what really happened to Anders provides the driving force behind the first half of the novel.

When Marina arrives in Brazil, in the city of Manaus, she does not immediately find Dr. Swenson, but instead ends up waiting for weeks, chauffeured around by a man named Milton and entertained by Barbara and Jackie Bovender, the couple who housesit Dr. Swenson’s apartment. Marina’s stay in Manaus is timeless, a limbo-like state where her days all blend together, where she has nothing that she needs to do. She goes for walks, visits the internet café, checks to see if her lost luggage has arrived yet (it hasn’t), stops in at the general store, reads, eats, and sleeps. And while her days are punctuated by interactions with the Bovenders, these two are, in Milton’s word, bohemian, so they do nothing to ground Marina in reality, instead adding an odd, almost Alice-in-Wonderland-like feeling to her time in Manaus.

The in-between nature of Marina’s stay in Manaus is reinforced by its geographical interstitiality as well, and by the contrast between Minnesota and the rain forest. While Minnesota is all prairie and sky, the jungle is all trees and water and dense vegetation. Manaus is somewhere in between these two places, in the space between close to home and far away. When Marina calls her boss in Minnesota, she realizes that “somehow it was only one hour earlier in Eden Prairie” (75), although it feels like she is halfway around the world. She also realizes that she fits in in Manaus in a way that she never did in Minnesota—her darker skin enables her to pass for Brazilian, allowing her to avoid the question, “Where are you from?”

Marina finally finds Dr. Swenson and follows her back into the rain forest to see for herself what happened to Anders and to find out about the status of the fertility drug. At this point, the pace of the novel quickens. Compared to the timelessness of Marina’s time in Manaus, her time in the jungle—while still disconnected from a sense of time that is dependent on a calendar—is marked by revelations about certain events, meeting new people, and dramatic developments in the plot. Once Marina enters the jungle, some of the questions about Anders’s death and the development of the fertility drug start getting answered, but just as quickly, new questions arrive to take their place.

This issue of pacing is perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks of State of Wonder; it seems that Patchett loves building up the tension in the novel, but that she is less interested in the things that happen after the tension comes to a head. Certainly though, this part of the novel is very rich, filled with interesting twists and turns that raise a number of fascinating questions about the practices and ethics of the pharmaceutical industry. And these very questions about how drug research gets funded, what motivates the spending of drug companies, and how such drugs are tested are what make State of Wonder appealing to a very broad audience that includes scientists as well as liberal arts majors, business analysts, and creative writers.

All these changes also lead up to the question that ends the novel: After everything that she experiences in the Amazon, is Minnesota still a state of wonder for Marina? Late in the story, Dr. Swenson tells Marina, “Trust me, you won’t fit in there anymore. You’ve changed… I changed myself once, it was a long time ago but I changed. I followed my teacher down here too. I thought I was coming for the summer. I know about this” (347). And given everything that has happened to Marina, Dr. Swenson’s statement seems reasonable.

It would be very easy to think that all of the changes she has undergone mean that she will stay in the jungle, working with Dr. Swenson. But in the final pages of the novel, as Marina reflects on Minnesota, she thinks this: “Minnesota! It smelled like raspberries and sunlight and tender grass.…There had never been a place in the world as beautiful as Minnesota” (352–53). Such unmitigated praise, particularly given the transformative experience that Marina has had in the jungle of Brazil, seems a bit out of place, and it is not immediately clear how the reader is supposed to interpret this passage. Does this mean that Marina will go back and stay in Minnesota? Does Patchett mean for this to be read ironically? Or is this a genuine sentiment? Is there really no place like Minnesota for Marina? Where, really, is the state of wonder?

Here we see the true power of Patchett’s skillful weaving of contrasting images, characters, and themes. Not only does this technique enable her to portray Marina’s development effectively, but it also allows her to imbue her narrative with the uncertainty that comes with existing in between. This uncertainty then becomes associated with the questions of sacrifice, belonging, and ethics, enabling the narrative to resist easy answers and encouraging readers to grapple with these questions themselves. While State of Wonder takes the reader from the frigid Midwest to the warmth of Brazil, making it the perfect novel for a cold winter day, it is not simply an escape. Instead, Patchett’s novel tells a story that spans continents, decades, and ideologies, and through the contrast of cold and warm, past and present, science and industry, nature and culture, immerses readers in a world that will linger with them in reality, long after the snow melts and the crocuses bloom.

 

Jennifer L. Miller is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts.

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