State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

state of wonder

Marina is heartbroken by the news of the death of her co-worker, Anders, who had been sent to the Amazon to assess the progress of research being conducted down there.  But when she learned that she now was the one being sent after him to investigate his death, her feelings were, understandably, quite mixed.  Why would her boss, Mr. Fox, with whom she had an “un-bossly” relationship send her down into a perilous situation?  And what would she encounter with the strong-minded and controversial researcher with whom she’d trained and had a checkered past with herself?  After seeing Anders’ wife and 3 boys and their sadness and disbelief that their father could truly be dead, she felt it her duty, though, to go and to see for herself how he’d died and what she could do to bring back his effects to help them in their grief.  What she found was beyond what she could have ever imagined.

This novel was stunning in both beauty and its depth.  As Marina learns more and more about the Amazon —  its people, its natural habitat, its dangers and its wonders — so too, does the reader.  Because of the crispness of the writing, one can breathe in the heaviness of the air, hear the insects buzzing around ones ears, feel the murkiness of the water they bathe in, and see the filth on the clothing Marina is forced to wear because she’s lost all of her luggage on the very first day.

But there is also a layering to the story which gives it depth.  There is the search for how Anders became sick with his undiagnosed fevers and the tenderness of the relationship he’d developed with the boy raised by the head researcher, Dr. Swenson.  There is the research itself, looking into why the women in the local tribe maintained their fertility well into their sixties and seventies – and the ethical concerns surrounding this.  There is the controversial character of Dr. Swenson – her avoidance of oversight and reluctance to be beholden to those who are funding her research.  What is she hiding?

I will not say how this book ended – but I will admit to you that I cried as I read the last few pages.  There unexpected twists that tug at your heart and at least caught me quite off guard.  So well done!

I have to say, this is a must-read!

 

The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

the arsonist

Frankie has just arrived home from her relief work in Africa, unsure of her next step, and immediately she is sucked into the drama of both her parents’ lives and of the small New England town they now inhabit year-round.  What everyone seems to be caught up in are the fires – fires being set in peoples’ homes.  First in homes of those not yet up for the summer, then gradually in homes of those who were up but not at home at the time, and then, most frighteningly, a few set when people were home.  As Frankie becomes more involved because of her parents’ involvement, she also becomes more involved in the newspaper reporter who is reporting on the fires – and this may disrupt her usual lifestyle of keeping herself unencumbered.  Will she change her pattern for him?  Will she change her pattern to help her more needy parents?  And who is setting these fires?

There is just enough suspense and character development to keep interest in this story, although it is only just enough.  It seems as though the author herself has only just enough interest in the story itself.  There is good character development and I liked each of the characters, particularly Bud, the newspaper reporter, who has given up the big city, political reporting for the small town, local newspaper gig.  He is down-home, and down-to-earth, and he connects to people genuinely with his heart.  She also creates a side story of Frankie’s parents and their tragic aging, which is painful and harsh, but also realistic and relatable.

I think the point is that the story is about relationships and not what is actually happening/the plot.  Maybe that is what the author intends all along.

Maybe that is life?