I like Ann Patchett more with every passing interview and quote I read of hers. Check out the video post directly before this one and it won’t take long to see why I’m a big fan. (Lying on the sofa reading books? Avocado sandwiches? Hello? Can we say separated at birth?)
In the attached video, Patchett describes herself as “profoundly uninteresting,” someone who doesn’t “do” anything. And yet State of Wonder is most easily categorized as an adventure story. The novel’s protagonist, a 40-something obstetrician-turned-pharmacologist is tasked with venturing into the Amazon jungle to find a former mentor who is developing a secret new drug for their shared employer. It would be difficult to describe the very interesting and imaginative story that ensues without taking away from the fun of reading this book, which unravels as smoothly and deliberately as the coils of an anaconda. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the jungle reference) So while I can’t get into the specifics, I can promise you well-written mystery, danger and a little touch of fantasy.
But what I appreciated most about State of Wonder was that it served as my companion during my own recent adventure, in which I was forced to get up off the couch and did not have access to a single avocado, if you can imagine such a thing. No, I wasn’t traveling down the Amazon in a canoe, but as I sat in the tropics-like heat of a Yale dorm room last Thursday night sweating between two wool blankets (the only bedding available to separate me from my plastic mattress) while trucks, motorcycles and infrequent blasts of car music tumbled by outside my window, I tried to read just a few pages in a fruitless effort to fall asleep. While I attempted to strategically angle the microscopic “face fan” I’d procured earlier that day at CVS (thanks anonymous CVS shopping partner, you know who you are), it struck me that I too was taking a journey.
As a volunteer writing coach for College Summit, my journey would involve several 16-hour days working with low-income students in an intensive program that prepares them for college, all while being reintroduced to the distinct experiences of sleeping and eating in a college dorm. By the time I arrived at Yale, I’d been traveling for two weeks and I felt utterly unprepared on just about every level, be it my limited supply of remaining clean clothes, my lack of experience with this demographic of students, the unfamiliar structure I’d need to follow, not to mention the challenges an introverted person faces when told that they are expected to be “on” every waking hour of their day. It was daunting. And did I mention the unfortunate haircut I was sporting?
I’ll cut to the chase. College Summit was one of the best things I’ve ever done. There are many reasons why the experience was so positive, but I can’t underestimate the importance of having allowed myself to be uncomfortable. It’s so easy to keep our lives under tight control and feel like the world “turns on” when we charge up our computers (and thank you, by the way, for staring at yours right now as you read this). But we can’t have adventures in the familiarity of our homes. We must venture out, both physically and mentally, if we’re to grow and achieve that state of wonder.