Until recently, Ann Patchett was for me one of those authors who name is familiar but whose work I’d never read. She was also one of those authors everyone seemed to assume I knew lots about.
She came out to the recent Brisbane Writers Festival (which I missed as I was overseas), and lots of well-read friends breathlessly stated both that they were going to see her and then, afterwards, that she was simply magic.
I composed my blank ‘I know exactly what you mean, when actually I don’t know at all’ face and nodded sagely, then scurried off to order myself one of her books.
Now I not only no longer have to do the ‘look like you’re in the know’ face while madly thinking ‘don’t let on you don’t’. Fittingly, given my ass-about-ness, I unwittingly ordered her recently released book, State of Wonder (probably because I didn’t know enough about her and this title sprang to mind; probably because it was the new book she was here to spruik and it had popped up in promo material).
No matter. It was exquisite (I’m trying to resist saying ‘it left me in a state of wonder’) and, if it’s anything to go by, her award-winning first book, Bel Canto, is doubly so.
That’s effectively one of the highest accolades I can give a fiction book, given my seriously non-fiction bent. I was rapt from the first paragraph of the first page, which opens with the following simple, highly visual, scene-setting sentences that immediately set the book’s tone and that throw us squarely into the middle of the story:
The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things?
This single sheet had travelled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.
‘What?’ she said finally.
He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all he could say was, ‘It’s snowing.’
Truthfully, State of Wonder was a book that both inspired and destroyed me simultaneously as I marvelled at Patchett’s simple-yet-flooring turns of phrase. I did wonder how much of it poured directly and perfectly formed from her head and onto the page/computer screen. I also wondered whether I’d ever be capable of something so simply sophisticated and compelling. Methinks not.
I had to stop dog-earing pages that contained sentences that blew me away because I’d have to dog-ear every page. One example includes:
At that moment she understood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.
Doesn’t seem quite so impressive on its own, but when you collate it with pages and page and pages of such understated elegance it’s, well, both awe-inspiring and a little depressing.
The long and the short of State of Wonder is that a doctor developing a fertility drug in the depths of the Brazilian jungle goes AWOL. The drug company she’s contracted to send another doctor to go find her. He winds up dead and yet another doctor is dispatched to find out what happened, bring him home, and also establish where the drug development is at.
That synopsis doesn’t do the tale justice, and Patchett has woven both a complex narrative of many overlapping, ultimately unveiling layers. Perhaps most fascinating is how she has created believable characters whose actions and motivations morph with such perfection that, rather than adhering to the stereotypes of the two-dimensional baddie and the untainted goodie, they subtly get under your skin and you find yourself admiring, understanding, being frustrated by, despising, and also liking them in equal measure.
Where State of Wonder sits in Patchett’s finger-flexing of her talents I don’t know. It will take me reading her other books to find out. But if State of Wonder is anything to go by, the others—especially the award-winning Bel Canto—are going to be magic.