What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?
Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.
Friday, July 15, 2011
"Dr. Swenson, I Presume?"
Much as Henry Stanley set off into the jungles of Africa in the 19th century in quest of the 'vanished' medical missionary Dr. Livingstone, Ann Patchett's 'heroine', Marina Singh, must go deep into the Amazon in search of a modern-day researcher, Dr. Swenson, conducting research into what might be a wonder drug for women hoping to become pregnant into their 50s and 60s. But Singh's quest is complicated by the fact that she isn't exactly a volunteer for the job, and the reason that she's going at all is that the last person sent out to figure out just what Dr. Swenson is up to with all the pharmaceutical company's money was Singh's lab partner, Anders Eckman. Now Singh and "Mr. Fox", her boss and sometime lover, have received a letter, a few lines scratched on an aerogram, telling them that Anders is dead, probably from fever.
The more the reader is able to shut down their incredulity about some plot twists and scenarios, the better this novel is. For instance, I found the premise a bit bizarre in the first place -- what company would allow a rogue scientist to labor away deep in the Amazon rain forest with no scientific accountability (far less financial accountability) and no routine contact with/feedback to the head office? And what pharmaceutical company would send out someone ill-equipped to analyze the specific kind of drug being prepared? Why not hire Kroll, the security consultants, to undertake an investigation? And so on...
If you can put all that stuff to one side, and just read this novel for what it is -- a book whose focus is really people, their relationships with each other and responsibilities to and expectations of each other, and the question of what makes a functioning society -- then this is a fascinating yarn of a middle-aged woman's rediscovery of herself by venturing into deeply uncomfortable physical terrain that stresses her in every conceivable way. Marina's luggage vanishes (twice); the heat and anti-malarial drugs wreak havoc on her body; at first she can't find Dr. Swenson and when the rogue medic eventually materializes, she is no more accommodating than she had been when she was Marina's presiding physician during the latter's medical training as an obstetrician and involved in the younger doctor's decision to quit practicing and turn to biomedical research. I admit I wanted to give Dr. Swenson a good shake; as written, she's a tyrant and a bully, or at least that's how the often two-dimensional character appeared to me as written.
Ultimately, it was just that -- the way the characters are presented to the reader -- that left me underwhelmed by this book. The prose is lush and beautiful; some of the descriptions are breathtaking. I could hear and see what it must be like to live in Manaus, a city that was once richer than London or Paris, and so vivid were the descriptions that it left me with no desire to go there for myself! But the characters -- even Marina -- never really took on lives of their own. The story was about the setting, and the kinds of societal issues involved; I kept feeling as if the characters served as symbols. Marina is far too passive, allowing herself to be pushed around by Anders's widow, by Mr. Fox, by the young Australians who live in Dr. Swenson's Manaus apartment, by Dr. Swenson and even by the Lakashi tribespeople. Marina's progression, the growth in her comfort level with the "wilds" of the Amazon is predictable. On the other hand, some of the later plot twists involving the fate of Anders, Mr. Fox, and the real identity of a young deaf/mute child Dr. Swenson has adopted are so implausible as to belong to some kind of potboiler.
I loved the author's prose and her ability to capture scenes. I wish she had resisted the temptation to venture into exotica and instead chosen to exercise her very real talents on more mundane subjects, not because her ideas weren't fascinating, but because I kept wondering whether she might be relying on those exotic elements to cover up holes in plot and character development. This was a lukewarm read for me, and I'm giving it 3.6 stars. The more you're able to read uncritically, the more you're likely to enjoy this novel, I suspect. For me, it was a book that I always felt distanced from -- even when I admired what the author had achieved, it never "lived" for me as a story.