Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I first heard about Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, last September when I had the good fortune to hear her read an excerpt from it in the auditorium across the street from my dorm room. Four Septembers at George Mason University finally paid off – I was able to meet one of my favorite authors and have her sign my mother’s copy of The Patron Saint of Liars during the Fall for the Book festival. Previous festivals had allowed me to listen to Sherman Alexie and Garth Stein speak, but never had I found an event so exciting. As much as I enjoyed the other events that I attended over the last four years, I doubt I will ever forget the day I met Ann Patchett.

NOTE: All that said, I do admit this review is slightly biased, but I think most readers of literary fiction would find more positive things to say about this book than negative.

State of Wonder is 353 pages of pure literary bliss, absolutely worth the 9 months I waited for its arrival. It is the mark of an extraordinary author to create a world so real to readers that they actually forget that what they are reading is imagined. This is Patchett’s sixth novel and it is clear that experience has taught her everything she needs to know in order to craft a beautiful and intelligent story with equally elegantly crafted characters.

From even the first pages Patchett sets up the narrative expertly. The reader can see a faint outline of a story arc – just enough to know where Patchett is taking you without being so transparent as to make the story dull or trite. In fact, the excellent structure of the novel is what makes it so compelling. The main character, Marina Singh is a doctor working for a pharmaceutical company, Vogel. Annick Swenson, another doctor for the company is developing a drug for fertility in the Amazon and Vogel has lost track of her. Mr. Fox, the head administrator at Vogel sent Marina’s lab partner, Anders Eckman, to find Dr. Swenson, but he died of a fever before persuading Dr. Swenson to hurry along. His wife, Karen Eckman asks Marina to go and find her husband’s body, or at least some information about the circumstances of his death, as Dr. Swenson has no time to waste on such sentimental matters. Mr. Fox also urges her to go and complete Eckman’s mission. All of this only in the first chapter! 

From there, the reader is taken along on Marina’s journey and made to fall in love with each individual character as they are carefully introduced and showcased. Among the researchers there are interesting relationships and points of view. As much as this novel is about finding answers about fertility and a loved one’s death, it is also about Marina’s friendship with Dr. Swenson and her struggle to rethink the path her life has taken.

Not often in literary fiction do I find myself wishing for a sequel to a book. However, there are so many avenues left open at the end of State of Wonder that I find it hard to say good bye to the characters. Patchett paints them so vividly that I feel as if I know them now and wish I could know what their future holds. Dr. Swenson’s research has not been completed, nor do I feel that Marina’s emotional journey has ended (though the second of these really would not end until her death). I understand why Patchett ended the book where she did, it feels like a fine stopping place, but I can’t control the urge to know what happens next. I know that she worked for years on this book, she talked about her problems with it in her speech, and her hard work paid off. She created lifelike, meaningful characters that the reader can sympathize with and care about. Characters this realistic deserve more attention and -- dare I say it? -- a second book.

Have you read State of Wonder yet? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.
You can find more reviews of State of Wonder here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

This blog is actually a reincarnation of a project I did in college for a web design class. I had to design my own website for a topic of my choice and so I created a book & movie review site of the same name as this one. I plan on re-posting at least two of those book reviews on here at some point, so here is the second of them, in full, with only a few minor formatting changes.

Baking Cakes in Kigali is an easy balance between heavy topics and lighthearted fun. Gaile Parkin sets out to tell the story of Angel Tungaraza, a caring menopausal woman who runs a cake baking business out of the international apartment complex where she lives in the heart of Kigali, Rwanda. Angel is lovable, though she does little to break out of the sterotypical sweet older lady role. She bakes cakes for her neighbors, and while she charges them for her creations, each one is designed with love, as a favor for a friend, even those friends she may have just met. She meddles in the lives of those closest to her and does her best to make sure that everyone is happy.

Even as a stereotype, Angel works in this book, because of her sugary-sweet personality. The book is filled with an undercurrent of mixed emotions left over from the horrors that occurred there in 1994. Many of the characters have their own horror stories to tell when the subject comes up and though many of the characters are international, the topic is still essential to the story. Angel's presence makes the Rwandan characters more at ease, she gives them the opportunity to say things that they cannot say to each other, partially because of her ability to make anyone around her feel comfortable, and partially because of her status as a visitor to Rwanda (She's a native Tanzanian). The theme of reconciliation in this book is highlighted by the wedding that Angel facilitates between Hutu Leocadie and Tutsi Modeste. She brings these two happy lovers together by both finding money to pay for their wedding and making all the arrangements as if Leocadie was her daughter. The symbolism here is clear, but it does not come off as too forced; the plot follows logically throughout the book, without the interruption of politics.

This is not the only weighty topic in the novel though, as Angel struggles to accept her HIV positive daughter's suicide and teach her grandchildren about sex and STDs. Parkin manages to keep the book on the upnote, though, by making these topics funny. Slight misunderstandings between culturally diverse neighbors, such as confusing the word cardamom with condom make for comical interactions and allow the reader to enjoy the book without getting weighed down by the more difficult topics. 

You can learn more about the book here.