Facing your heart of darkness, for love: State of Wonder

She was not terrified that the patient would die or she would lose the baby, she was terrified that she was doing something wrong in the eyes of Dr. Swenson.

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is about a life severely, intentionally curtailed.

Marina Singh appears to be a successful scientist conducting important research at a pharmaceutical company; only she knows that long ago she’d bailed out of her own life.

When Marina was a chief resident in obstetrics, she performed a complicated delivery that ended badly. There was a lawsuit. Her marriage to a fellow resident dissolved. She wasn’t asked to leave the residency program, but she felt compelled to punish herself and leave on her own.

That way, she never had to face her classmates, or patients, or the brilliant, intimidating Dr. Swenson, again.  Anick Swenson had been the attending physician on call the day of the crisis. All the medical students revered and feared her.

Dr. Swenson had more important things to do than learn any of her students’ names. Patchett writes, “She was harder on the women…She would tell them stories of her own days in medical school and how when she came along the men knit their arms together to keep her out. They made a human barricade against her, they kicked at her when she climbed over them, and now all the women were just walking through, no understanding or appreciation for the work that had been done for them.”

Marina never told her mother why she abruptly decided not to become a doctor. She has never told her lover, Mr. Fox, who is president of the pharma company she works for. She never told her close friend and colleague, Anders Eckman, who has just died of fever in the Amazon jungle.

Now, Anders’ wife has begged Marina to find out what she can about Anders’ death and retrieve his body. Mr. Fox has asked her to check on the progress of a top secret research project being conducted by none other than Dr. Swenson, who makes it a practice of remaining incommunicado.

Marina doesn’t want to set foot in the jungle, and she doesn’t want to see Dr. Swenson. But she goes, because she cares deeply for Anders, who has left behind a wife and three young boys.

Here is the particular nugget of the story I keep coming back to:

“The great, lumbering guilt that slept inside of her at every moment of her life had shifted, stretched.”

When you think about it, Marina has suffered and continues to suffer deeply, even though her suffering is hidden away. She knows what she’s lost. She was a bright, capable young woman who wanted to devote herself to caring for women and helping them bring new life into the world. Yet in the space of a few hours she walked away from it all. She’d spent the greater part of her adult life only half alive, using a fraction of her potential. She seems to be very much alone; she holds the other people in her life at a distance, and she settles for a less than fulfilling relationship with Mr. Fox.

Marina has never gotten over her past. She locked it away in a dark corner of her mind and got on with things. Being forced to face down her demons is the psychological story within the story of Marina’s journey into the Amazon jungle. It turns a plot driven novel into something more urgent and real for the reader, even if the reader is only half aware of it.

This fusing of outward adventure and inner journey is what ultimately cast a spell over me and made it impossible not to follow Marina into the darkness. I’m reliving my own life issues as Marina relives hers. I test myself as Marina has to test herself. I’m working some things out.

I admire Marina, but not all of the decisions she makes as her story unfolds, and that’s as it should be when reading about a character who is real, alive.

The essential story in this book, for me, is the reclaiming of a life. By the end of the story, I’m different.  Not in a dramatic way, but nonetheless something has shifted.  A truly great book will stay with me and continue to wield its power. And I can’t begin to measure the impact of many books read over a lifetime.

Some people say the book is in danger of disappearing. But in a recent essay, Timothy Egan writes that people are actually reading more and buying more books. I think we will always hunger for the power of story and the collective wisdom of the great writers and thinkers. Certainly movies, the stage, and all forms of multimedia are flourishing. So are books. They’ll always have their place.

A word about spoilers

In my book discussions, I try to avoid spoilers. However, anything goes in the comments, where I’d like to have free, open conversation. State of Wonder is a rich, complex story and I’ve only touched on a few of its themes. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book.

Next up for May: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

This memoir has shot to number 8 on the New York Times Best Seller list and is getting a lot of attention. I haven’t read the book yet, but I know that it is searing in its honesty, and Cheryl’s story isn’t for the fainthearted.  I hope you’ll read along with me. If you have a couple of friends who might like Wild, please let them know about Books Can Save a Life. I’d like to get a discussion going about this book.

All quotes are from State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, HarperCollins, 2011.

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