Ann Patchett and the Bel Canto Curse

Ann Patchet’s latest novel, State of Wonder, is a terrific book, as was her previous novel, Run. But when I recommend either of these excellent books to friends and library customers, I find that each and every one says, “Oh, I loved Bel Canto. Is this like Bel Canto?” Of course, in some stylistic ways, in the way she turns a sentence or describes a character’s emotional reaction, you certainly know you are reading Ann Patchett. But no, it’s not Bel Canto. State of Wonder is its own story, a fascinating one that begins in a research laboratory in Minnesota and journeys to the Amazon and a mysterious tribe deep in the jungle whose women remain fertile into old age.

Dr. Marinah Singh, a 42-year-old scientist, is dispatched by the pharmaceutical company for which she works to investigate the reported death of a fellow researcher. The state of wonder begins from the moment she arrives in Brazil and journeys into an increasingly strange land, but also into unexplored parts of her own psyche and past. Singh locates the legendary Dr. Annick  Swenson, in her 70’s and carrying on her research in the village. Singh studied under Swenson in medical school and had a catastrophic experience there that changed the direction of Singh’s life; Swenson doesn’t seem to remember her. The oddities of Swenson’s character, the almost hallucinatory characteristics of the insects, the plants, the animals of this jungle environment create a dream-like quality that becomes nightmarish as Singh searches more deeply into the Swenson’s work and the life of the tribe.

But back to the Bel Canto curse: every time I describe State of Wonder to someone or recommend Run, another brilliant work, s/he immediately starts talking about Bel Canto. I begin to think Patchett should have saved Bel Canto until the end of her writing career. Bel Canto is, of course, an extraordinary novel, and I do understand why everyone who reads it remembers it and longs to repeat the delight of reading it. Still, Patchet’s later novels are each outstanding. Please read them both and stop hoping to re-read Bel Canto while you do! If by some strange chance you have not yet read Bel Canto, put that one on your list as well.