State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, 368 pages. Available in hardcover, Kindle, and ebook from Harper.
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past.
I have come to expect much from Ann Patchett and she has successfully managed to put her characters through the moral wringer once again. Set in a Kingsolver-esque environment, don't let the complex surroundings distract you from the real story - the character is king here. Dr. Swenson has constructed an orderly existence that comes to be threatened by more than the gnarly bugs of the Amazon. Patchett is a master at establishing her characters in comfort and then removing all those constructs to reveal their true selves, laid bare, and usually ugly. She understands human nature better than most and is willing to let her characters suffer the consequences, leaving judgment to the reader. While this story doesn't move along as quickly as my impatience would like, there is a method to the languid revelatory pace. It may be that some readers will feel duped or left short by the abrupt ending. But another of Patchett's trademarks is knowing when there is nothing left to say. So in her honor, let me end by saying read this one.
thank you to HarperCollins for the review copy
Faith: A Novel by Jennifer Haigh, 304 pages. Available in hardcover, Kindle and ebook from Harper.
When Sheila McGann sets out to redeem her disgraced brother, a once-beloved Catholic priest in suburban Boston, her quest will force her to confront cataclysmic truths about her fractured Irish-American family, her beliefs, and, ultimately, herself.
Having read all of Haigh's previous work, I knew there would be solid character development but feared for the content, wondering how she would handle this delicate subject. This turned out to be my favorite of all her novels - displaying true maturity and skill, she delivers a serious story of family and appearances rather than issue driven scandal. Sheila's guilt over her assumptions fuels her desire to meticulously uncover the real story, and I found her responses authentic. And I appreciated how Haigh drew out the contrasts between the brothers - the shamed priest and successful realtor - without being predictable. Author Haigh has written a sympathetic portrayal of a family disjointed by things unspoken and misguided belief.
thank you to HarperCollins for the review copy
The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls, 476 pages. Available in Paperback, Kindle and ebook from Harper Paperbacks.
What sane woman would consider becoming any man's ninth wife?
Bess Gray is a thirty-five-year-old folklorist and amateur martial artist living in Washington, DC. Just as she's about to give up all hope of marriage, she meets Rory, a charming Irish musician, and they fall in love. But Rory is a man with a secret, which he confesses to Bess when he asks for her hand: He's been married eight times before. Shocked, Bess embarks on a quest she feels she must undertake before she can give him an answer. With her bickering grandparents (married sixty-five years), her gay neighbor (himself a mystery), a shar-pei named Stella, and a mannequin named Peace, Bess sets out on a cross-country journey—unbeknownst to Rory—to seek out and question the wives who came before. What she discovers about her own past is far more than she bargained for.
When I began reading, I wondered how Stolls could make this story seem plausible. Really, how could a smart girl (any girl) continue in a relationship with a serial groom? But she does - not only believable but compelling with an added and surprising depth. You are rooting for Bess - so controlled amid the chaos - and even if you aren't necessarily rooting for Rory, you can't help but be curious. And maybe that is where I ran into problems, I didn't want his explanations to go down quite so easily. Identifying with Bess and her need to find out about Rory's past by going on a road trip to track down his exes seemed natural. But I'm not sure I thought her responses were genuine, but simply served to move the story forward. Although I definitely found myself considering what counsel I would give a friend in a similar situation (run for the hills!), his reckless behavior was given a long leash and at some point I could no longer excuse it while Bess continued to wrestle with it. I think Stolls did a crafty job with a difficult sell - maybe a little too good at erring on the side of non-judgment. Despite my break with the storyline it was a thoughtful and entertaining look at the decisions people make and how they make peace with the past. This would be real humdinger for a bookclub - there is so much material here!
thank you to NetGalley for the review copy
Don't forget to enter the giveaway for my summer fave: Rules of Civility - in the post below!!