How Character Drives Story -- Book Review of Ann Patchett's State of Wonder
Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, published in 2011, is a story about a pharmaceutical researcher's attempt to make sense of her lost colleague, presumably dead in the Amazon, while wrestling with a domineering academic professor who refuses to communicate updates about her research.
The book begins at a slow pace but, as Janet Maslin notes in her New York Times review, the story catches fire when the narrator, Marina Singh, meets up with Annicka Swenson, the mythic professor of Marina's past.
Dr. Swenson, a medical professor specializing in reproductive endocrinology, has gone to the Amazon to live with the Lakashi -- a tribe of indigenous people where the women can continue bearing children throughout their lives (this is not necessarily an advantage). Dr. Swenson's goal is to find out the secret of their fertility and develop a drug for Vogel, the pharmaceutical company sponsoring her research.
The Vogel CEO, Dr. Fox, is eager to receive an update about Swenson's research, but she is out of touch in the Amazon, and it has been 26 months since she last communicated with Vogel. Meanwhile, Vogel continues to spend a ton of money supporting the effort.
Dr. Fox sent one employee, Anders Eckman, to seek out Dr. Swenson, but Anders, a jungle novice, contracted a fever in the Amazon and presumably died. Dr. Fox decides to send another employee, Marina, a former student of the mythic Dr. Swenson, and also his mistress, to locate Dr. Swenson and get an update about the research.
That's the basic plot, which I could unravel in more detail, but it's not the purpose of this post. The true purpose of this post isn't even a book review, but rather to take an element of the book and incorporate it into my own writing, to review Patchett's most salient fiction technique and reflect on it.
What's my takeaway from State of Wonder? Character. Barbara Bovender, a Bohemian hired to look after Swenson's apartment in Manaus, describes the character of Dr. Swenson to Marina as follows:
“Once you understand Annick [Swenson] you know there's nobody like her. I was thinking that maybe you hadn't been around her in a while, or you'd forgotten. . . . She's such a force of nature. Her work is thrilling, but really, it's almost beside the point. She's what's so amazing, the person herself, don't you think? I try to imagine what it would have been like to have a mother like that, a grandmother, a woman who was completely fearless, someone who saw the world without limitations" (p.96).
In Janet Maslin's New York Times review of State of Wonder, Maslin notes that it's the introduction of Swenson in context with Marina that brings the book to life:
Not until Marina comes face to face with Swenson does this unexpectedly meandering novel find its focus. In books like “Bel Canto” and “Run” Ms. Patchett found amazing ways to coax unrelated elements into magically coherent narratives and make them all matter. But in this case, it is Swenson who is far and away the book's best-realized character. And the reader drifts past many so-so secondary figures and generic tropical scenery before her presence is really felt.
When she does appear, so does this book's central issue, its unresolved rivalry, its beating heart. And she is worth the wait. Here is the dragon of a teacher who lurks somewhere in every student's academic history, and whose cruelty and exactitude are inseparable personality traits. (Will Perilous Trek to Amazon Reveal Heart of Darkness?)
Dr. Swenson is domineering in intelligence and risk. She's a researcher that sees past ethics to embrace the scientific method to the extreme. Her work consumes her life and environment. Her demeanor, in relation to everyone around her, comes off as straightforward, insensitive, directorial – but colleagues respect her because of her knowledge and intensity. In fact, they fear her. She has even trained the natives to passively submit to the needle pricks and cotton swabs to required for testing and drug development. Engaged in her life's work, Dr. Swenson sees no bounds – she will forego any reports that impose on her time, ignore inquires from the CEO, cross ethical boundaries to carry out her own human experiment, and continue forward with her work without regard for the emotions of those around her.
Dr. Swenson's students both worship and fear her, and somewhere in that emotional slip-knot, the story grows. That's the real story – the encounter of an unconfident student with her mythic professor. The interaction provides a depth of emotion and conflict. At times one feels awe, other times repulsion, for the legendary Dr. Swenson. She gives the book life.
Now, overall Patchett tells a good story. It starts slow, but once Marina gets to the Amazon with Swenson, the story pulls you in. The book doesn't reach an intensity of plot or intricacy ideas that would make it a classic. The plot remains a bit too safe. The story never climbs up to a level with enough energy to keep me up past midnight. Even so, the book is satisfying. The development of the Dr. Swenson character allows it to achieve the impact it does.
It seems that fiction needs not only well-developed characters to provide interest, but characters that are larger than life. And yet, in developing larger-than-life characters, writers can't exaggerate the characteristics and actions too much or the characters will lose a sense of realism. Perhaps this is the art – to achieve a perfect balance, developing a larger-than-life character without resorting to exaggerated, overdone strokes that fail to meet the reader's the suspension of disbelief.
With Dr. Swenson, I never felt her actions or thoughts were unrealistic. Yet they were extreme enough and purposeful enough to draw me in. And it is precisely this character that makes the book worth reading and reviewing.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.