I loved Bel Canto. Absolutely adored it. I thought that its portrayal of the tensions of a hostage situation were incredibly nuanced, and its depiction of the emotional power of music was incredibly moving. I thought that her prose was very lyrical and flowed incredibly well.
State of Wonder struck me in much the same way. It’s not a hostage situation, there are no musicians (although there is a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice that is fantastically portrayed), but the sense of taking us into an extreme situation and making it feel real, making us sympathise with all the different perspectives without necessarily taking a stand on the morality of any of them, is still there. As is the lyrical prose. It was a joy to read, to immerse myself in the words and the world that she has established.
It’s a complicated world, spanning Minnesota and Brazil and navigating the tricky issues of fertility, research ethics, and truth. Race (the main character is half-Indian, half-white; the doctors are with a native tribe in the Amazon basin) is explored but not one of the major issues of the book, refreshingly. More important are the culture clash issues, connected with but not reliant on race. How do you shift from a lab in Minnesota to a village in Brazil? How does a white woman doctor navigate the politics between tribes with languages she can’t even speak?
More importantly, how to you balance the demands of research funding (and funders) with the demands of the research itself, or the researchers? Who needs to be accountable to whom? And, because fertility is such an issue, there’s also the matter of who is responsible for whom?
The characters are all very complex – but understandable even if you don’t like them. Even Dr. Swenson, who does some pretty horrible and amoral things, is understandable. And she does some very horrible, amoral if not actually immoral things. She also seems to feel that everyone who doesn’t act and react the same way that she does is lacking, or inferior in some way.
Marina is also very understandable, partially because she’s the main character. But while I did understand her, and identify with her, and empathise with her, I did realise (on reflection) that she’s really quite passive. Almost everything that happens in the book happens to her; nothing really happens because of her. Even the action she does take is propelled by other people, and she carries it out with a sense of inevitability: she acts because she can’t NOT act.
But, then, who among us wouldn’t do the same? Who, on being faced with the fact of the death of a friend and colleague, wouldn’t help his grieving widow understand, especially when her request coincides with a near-demand from your boss that you finish his job and retrieve his possessions? Who, on being abruptly taken into a completely alien world and culture, wouldn’t sit back and observe the situation, at least at first, and especially if you were scientifically trained? It’s letting things happen, but it’s also what makes her human.
[Sidenote: I’m 99% sure that Marina is pregnant at the end. Anyone read it and want to weigh in?]