I was delighted when this year’s longlist was announced as I’d already read two titles. I hadn’t reviewed them. The reviews fell prey to the busy-ness associated with attending last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. However, both have added to the to-be-reread with my book group pile. Which is a recommendation of sorts, isn’t it? Let’s see what I remember about them 6 months down the line.
Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is one of my favourite Orange Prize winners. So I was delighted when she returned to South America with her latest, although the setting in the Amazonian jungle is as far away from the interior of a Japanese embassy as you can imagine. The setting in a State of Wonder is as colourful as the wonderful hardback dustjacket; the sense of adventure is great. The plot does rely on a couple of coincidences that I found hard to swallow but it is well-paced and engaging. The main reason I really want to read this with my book group, however, is for the discussion that the book will generate regarding issues of fertility. When it comes to science, medicine and ethics, I am very much of the mindset that just because we can, doesn’t automatically mean that we should. The journey that the fairly unsympathetic Dr Swenson takes during the course of this novel is one that I relish the thought of debating with my book group.
At 528 pages in the hardback edition, Gillespie and I, is 150 pages longer than State of Wonder and the pace accordingly much more leisurely. So much so that during the first half of the novel I wondered what the editor had been thinking. Come the second half and I began to understand. Harriet Baxter’s perambulatory narrative is meant to beguile. To assure us of her sincerity and trustworthiness despite her warnings of dark times to come. Repeated warnings which didn’t sit well with me – I’m not a fan of this technique. On second thoughts though, they are in keeping with Harriet’s garrulousness. And the twists, when they came, did surprise. Perhaps I was reading too quickly and failed to pick up the clues. I’ll be paying much more attention second time through. For these details will provide much fodder for my book group as indeed will the portrait of late nineteenth century Glasgow. Motherwell is only 20 miles distant.