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This is the second half of an email discussion I held on Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder. The first part was posted yesterday. Note that we go into some detail about the book; you may prefer not to read the discussion if you’re not already familiar with State of Wonder.
Alison Bacon: I’d be interested to know how you people think Marina plans to move on after delivering Anders home. First time of reading I assumed she would go back to the jungle – second time I was less sure. Pregnancy by Anders is an obvious possibility. Can we assume her relationship with Jim Fox at an end? Just interested to see if an ‘open’ ending has produced the same or different responses, or are we to look no farther than Marina’s ‘mission accomplished’?
David Hebblethwaite: I got a strong sense of finality from the ending, with Marina back on her home turf, and Anders reunited with his family. The tone of the prose definitely suggested to me that she was drawing a line under it and moving on.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think the key is ‘home turf’; there is a line on p.50 in my paperback, where Marina, with reference to Minnesota, is described as having the ‘finely honed sense of a native’ when it comes to judging the weather, not surprisingly, having lived there all her life. But set that against her desire as a child, on p.35, ‘longing [for] an entre country where, that place where no one would turn around and look at her unless it was to admire her good posture’, by comparison with Minnesota, where no one believes she’s from around there (or else think she’s Native American; I’m tickled that the gas station attendant would go so far as to ask ‘Lakota?’). And also the convincing herself that ‘she practically was from Indian’. The unspoken irony of course is that her paleness would be much admired by Indians, many of whom persist in seeing pale skin as preferable to dark skn (colonial influence, subsequent heavy marketing of skin whitening products) but would also mark her out as from not there. I’m not sure Patchett digs at that as well as she might.
Anyway, there is a clear sense that Marina is trying to find a place for herself, but having sampled various kinds of Indianness and indigeneity, I think the ending obliges her to recognise that she is a Minnesotan first. (And actually, I can’t help thinking, given her extraordinary reticence throughout, she is a living embodiment of Minnesota Nice).
David: I’ll throw another question (or two) into the mix: do you think that, by novel’s end, Marina could be said to have stepped out of Swenson’s shadow? And, taking inspiration from Maureen’s most recent message, how would you compare Marina’s view of Swenson with that of her father?
Maureen: I have been pondering this and it occurs to me that it’s not just about Marina stepping out of Swenson’s shadow but out of everyone’s and, if you like, acquiring agency of her own, genuine agency. Because it occurs to me that much of this novel is about surrogate and deferred and detached parenting and families.
First, the status of Marina’s own family doesn’t seem very clear to me. Did her parents marry? Divorce? She and her mother travel to him but he seems not to travel to her at all. There is a sense here of Marina being in limbo. To this is added the fact that she has no contact with her half-siblings so there is another layer of fracturing and separation. We have very little sense of Marina’s mother other than as someone who matter-of-factly overlooks telling Marina about the Lariam-induced nightmares when she’s older, and this is mirrored in Marina’s own habit of not telling her mother much. No stepfather either? Marina’s own marriage lasts a couple of years and there doesn’t actually seem to be much in it all.
Nor do we have the figures she seems drawn to – her father whose two families don’t meet; Mr Fox/Jim who is, as we are told a number of times, old enough to be her father, and with whom she has a concealed relationship, and Annick Swenson, who seems to have had more than one concealed relationship (with Rapp and with the unknown father of her child), all of whom are parent figures, and of course Anders, who is a kind of husband-substitute.
This spreads out further when one thinks of how reliant Marina seems to be on others – Milton, for example, and Easter, and Tomo, and the Bovenders, though Barbara more than Jackie, who seems to be himself reliant on Barbara, rather as they are in turn reliant on Swenson to give them purpose. (There seems to me too to be a lot about child figures in this – quite apart from a certain childlike quality about Anders’ basic acceptance of life, Jackie and Easter are both curious figures in all this.)
Comparing Swenson and Marina’s father, I have an odd sense that they have in some way swapped roles if one views them as stereotyped figures. Marina’s father is, in her memories of him, very soft and comforting, almost maternal, whereas Swenson is represented, and intentionally, as very masculine – I am thinking of the stories the reader is told about Swenson’s own fight for acceptance at medical school and her treatment by the other students, her apparent need to pass on this resilience to her female students although the reader might consider this to be as much bullying as assistance. Also, her rigidity of practice and how this is applied to the case of the woman in labour. And in turn how Marina is so scared of Swenson’s possible response when she begins the caesarian one might argue that it is that as much as anything that causes her to botch the operation.
I think the point, though, is that neither of them is there when most needed. One could see Marina’s journey into the Amazon as accidentally exorcising those memories not through her regaining her confidence as a clinician –as the result of more bullying – but that she achieves adulthood by doing what she believes to be right, by finding and rescuing Anders and taking him home, without help. It seems to me that this is the point when *she* takes charge, even if she does then slip into an odd parental relationship with Anders. In fact, it strikes me that for Marina there is no way to be actively an adult in her own right; maybe this is what is happening at the end of the novel, when she is no longer responsible for anyone but herself?
Annoné Butler: I felt sad for Marina at the end. On the one hand she is delighted to be back in Minnesota and there is a lovely description of the sights and smells of her home. On the other hand, what she has done is unremarked and unappreciated? Anders is back in the bosom of his family; Marina is not thanked (at that point anyway) for her rescue of him and I assumed that her relationship with Mr Fox was at an end? Does she realise that she loves (or loved) Anders? She is a lonely figure at the end (I thought) but not a pitiable one. What anchors her other than her conviction that Minnesota is the most beautiful place on earth? She says to Anders “Let’s go home”. And the next sentence says “And so they did”. And, as Alison suggests, there is the possibility of pregnancy which is tantalising – is this her new life?
And what of the “loss” of Easter? Swenson thinks that he will return and forgive her. But Marina does not think that Swenson is right on this. I think it is difficult to see her going back with Easter gone.
As to Marina having stepped out of Swenson’s shadow. I think that probably she has. There is the defiance in leaving even though Swenson wants Marina to carry on her work. She becomes very decisive at the end and much less “biddable”. As Swenson says: “You’ve changed”. She has also laid her surgical ghosts which were connected to Swenson.
Alison: I agree now that the ending points to a homecoming, not a journey back to the jungle. This jumped out at me second time around. Yes, she has stepped from Swenson’s shadow and freed herself from the ‘surgical ghosts.’ She has also made her own mind up about Lariam, thereby freeing herself from the nightmares about her father. Perhaps we are to see her as having reached a point where she is able to make her own decisions whereas in the past she allowed others – her family, her lover, her mentor – to decide for her.
As for Anders, I think in the ‘safety’ of the jungle, (no danger of being rejected or of harming his marriage) she is able to admit to herself that she has always harboured feelings for him. But having acted on these feelings she lays them to rest. There is no sense of regret in delivering him home. I think it unlikely she goes back to Jim Fox as the relationship may have been the product of her self-deception re Anders.
And so Marina’s initial conflicts (including some she had not acknowledged!) are resolved. I don’t think we need to be too unhappy for her. And there has been an important change – she has an awareness of her fertility and her maternal instincts. This is enough to suggest some kind of new beginning whether or not a pregnancy has taken place. Interestingly this has not really been delivered by science, as she has simply exploited a natural product which is unlikely to be developed as a drug.
Maureen: It’s occurred to me that there is something very odd about time in this novel. Mr Fox says of Dr Swenson ‘I’m not sure she possesses a concept of time’ (with the implication that out in the forest, time runs differently anyway) but time seems to be a very flimsy thing generally. The Bovenders are literally marking time, just waiting around at Swenson’s pleasure, but Swenson herself is, if we think back, astonishingly precise about time as well – ignoring Marina for contacting her too soon.
Annoné: I do agree about the concept of time. Also, I did find the Bovenders very odd. They simply did not seem like the type of people that Swenson would deal with, would let her flat to, or would use for her purposes. They clearly act as “gatekeepers” restricting access to her. But they seem too flaky to be entrusted with such roles – the opposite of the precise Swenson. I did not find that they convinced as characters.
Maureen: I was similarly struck by the oddity of the Bovenders and I am puzzled by Swenson’s relationship with them. Mostly I am struck by how ‘unreal’ they seem, almost unearthly in fact; Barbara’s beauty, Jackie’s childishness (even in the name); they feel more like mythical creatures, demigods or something.
I’ve been thinking about them for a while and I’m struck by the complication of the relationship between them and Swenson, them and Marina, and with one another. There are weird mother-child dynamics going on throughout. Swenson is a providental mother-figure to them, providing somewhere to live, money, etc. yet Barbara seems also to be as much mother to Jackie as she is wife (and almost more believable as such). They seem to be wanderers too, who have got stuck (and a mirror imagine to Marina who is someone wandering who would really prefer to be static, possibly also Anders, which might shed a little more light on Marina’s relationship with him too, the odd parent-lover thing).
They’re almost like Swenson’s city children whereas Easter is her jungle child (and not how he shifts into parent role very easily as well, particularly once away from the city); which makes me wonder in turn if she collected them or they attached themselves to her. They seem to be powerless to break away but also reluctant to do so. Which makes me think then of things like Circe the sorcereess, and the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey, though there are also strong elements of Ariadne and Theseus and the Minotaur’s labyrinth, not to mention Orpheus and Eurydice reversed. It is as though Marina’s journey into the jungle is a journey from reality into myth and her return (and indeed survival because she does not look back after Swenson). Swenson’s mysterious pregnancy plays into this as well: the immaculate conception or the unknown father, the ‘mermaid’ baby. I wonder if Patchett is in some way trying to represent the forest as a primordial place where everything – people, mythology, etc. – is still in play and still in flux. Not sure I believe she’s been successful but I’m curious as to what she’s up to, whether she’s up to anything.
Thanks to everyone who took part in the discussion. If you enjoyed it, stay tuned, as I’ll be holding more of these in the future.