Archives for posts with tag: fertility

The+Heart+Broke+InMy early thoughts on The Heart Broke In were positive. It seemed absorbing, has a big, bold cast of characters, and James Meek is a great storyteller. It is part moral thriller, part classy, sleek soap opera – there’s blackmail, infidelity, scorned lovers, death, questions of paternity and tabloid exposés. Then things went sour. I really wanted to like this but The Heart Broke In never remotely lived up to its early potential.

Val Oatman, tabloid newspaper owner, gets his kicks from exposing the dirty secrets of beloved celebrities. He uses his newspaper to put them on a pedestal, only to send them crashing to the ground. Val sets up the Moral Foundation, an agency devoted to blackmailing celebrities with secrets to hide into giving up the secrets of friends and family. Ritchie Shepherd finds himself in Val’s sightline after Ritchie’s sister Bec breaks Val’s heart. Ritchie, a middle-aged ex-rock star and reality makeover show producer, has just ended his latest extra-marital affair, this time with a fifteen year old girl.

Bec is a scientist doing research on a malaria vaccine. She soon starts dating Ritchie’s old friend Alex, a fellow scientist doing cancer research. Bec and Alex reach celebrity couple status due to their cutting edge discoveries. Alex is desperate for a child but has had trouble conceiving with his previous girlfriend, and now with Bec. These elements, along with a dozen others, come together to give Ritchie the ammunition he needs to escape the clutches of the Moral Foundation.

Meek has a finicky writing style – ‘folding a leaf of crispy chicken skin onto the tines of his fork’. It’s not often that I see references to a fork’s tines, and then there are whole pages dedicated to intricate description of Alex riding his bike through London. As an isolated incident Meek’s prose wouldn’t have bothered me, but the infractions kept adding up.

The Heart Broke In is full of nasty characters, which isn’t a problem in itself but either something about them has to be particularly interesting or the plot has to keep you going. Unsavoury characters have the potential to be flat; their nastiness can become all that defines them. Meek struggles to keep his characters three-dimensional; he fights to show they have ‘feelings’, that they are ‘conflicted’. He even tried to make me believe that Ritchie is capable of feeling guilt. As I read The Heart Broke In I felt certain that Ritchie must be a sociopath. Even if that’s what Meek was aiming for I’m not convinced sociopaths make for interesting fiction characters. Ritchie has a strange urge to be known for his generosity but he only cares for others to the extent that they offer him something – they make him look like a good father, or they give others something to envy. When, at first, Ritchie decides to sacrifice himself for the good of his sister he phrases his reasoning to do so in such as way that, despite doing the right thing, he comes across as unbelievably selfish, petulant and disgusting.

Val Oatman’s actions only make sense if he is mentally ill, which is a cop-out, and Bec Shepherd uses incredibly twisted logic to justify using Alex’s brother for her own gain (I felt it was out of character given the rest of the novel). Meek obviously wanted to explore shades of morality, the characters needed to do certain things in order to say what he needed to say, resulting in plot dictating character. That just so happens to be a pet hate of mine, so other readers will likely be more forgiving.

So if the characters are hard to fathom, then there’s always plot to keep your interest. Not here. After a great start there’s a huge lull. The plot reaches a stalemate about half way through, to the point that I considered not bothering reading any more but I don’t think it’s fair to dislike a book you haven’t read until the bitter end. I’m persistent. Bec’s malaria research, Alex’s cancer research, and the progression of their relationship were well done but not nearly enough to make up for how boring it got when the blackmail plot petered out.

Eventually the blackmail scheme that was set up at the very start becomes relevant again. But too late. The Heart Broke In was unrealistic, overly long and, especially for all it promised, fairly dull. It would have automatically been much better if it had just been shorter or, I suppose, if Meek had just had something more to say. The start was great though.

State of WonderDr. Marina Singh receives word that her colleague and friend, Anders Eckman, has died while on assignment in the Amazon. Anders was charged with bringing back information on the progress of fertility drug research headed up by the great Dr. Annick Swenson for the head of Vogel drug company, Mr. Fox. In the wake of Dr. Eckman’s death, and failure to discover Swenson’s progress with the elusive drug, Mr. Fox sends Marina, Dr. Swenson’s former student, deep into the Amazonian jungle to uncover the whereabouts of Anders’ remains and the information that eluded her predecessor.

State of Wonder begins with the tone of a quasi-thriller or mystery. Lies and secrets abound. There’s an unexpected and largely unexplained death, a trip into the dangerous unknown, and a mysterious drug that could grant lifelong fertility to women. It starts strong but then there’s a lull. On arrival in the Amazon, Marina makes the acquaintance of the Bovenders, a young couple that housesit for Dr. Swenson and protect her from the intrusions of the outside world. I found the relationship between the Bovenders and Dr. Swenson a strange addition. They’re so protective of her, so enamoured with her drive to succeed, and her unwavering belief that she is always right and never accountable to anyone. Fearless is a positive way of describing Swenson, but these aren’t qualities I usually find the slightest bit admirable. As I read I thought, perhaps she’s supposed to be the villain of the piece, to put things in absolute terms. Between the Bovenders’ obsequious pandering and Marina’s tragic reminiscences of her time as her student, I initially felt like hitting Dr. Swenson. However, despite being portrayed as merciless, icily composed and lacking empathy she does turn out to be a fascinating character.

State of Wonder improves greatly, at least for a time, after Dr. Swenson appears in the flesh, about half way through the novel. Not only do Marina and Swenson begin travelling deep into the jungle but Swenson’s presence brings a sparkle that was sorely lacking. Marina is a poor choice for a main character. Essentially, she’s bland. Prior to Dr. Swenson’s appearance all there was to keep me entertained was the turgid, lukewarm romance between Mr. Fox and Marina, and Marina’s trite recurring nightmare of losing her father in a crowd in India.

Once Dr. Swenson makes her appearance I realised that she was what the story was missing. Swenson makes an engaging antagonist. Her stories and perspective are unique. She’s continually frustrating because she has an answer for everything and is driven by pure logic, but is still so often annoyingly right. Annick Swenson makes you think twice, as opposed to Marina, summed up here by Swenson herself, ‘I keep hoping that you are more than you show yourself to be, Dr. Singh. I am just on the verge of liking you but you dwell on the most mundane points.’ Even Anders, from rare descriptions of him and his response to jungle life, would likely have been a more interesting protagonist.

Ann Patchett’s writing allows you to picture the Amazonian jungle. There’s the treacherous wildlife, imposing flora, and vicious natives. She also creates an absorbing culture for the Lakashi, the tribe at the centre of Swenson’s research. They take part in ‘vision quests’ after taking rare hallucinogenic mushrooms called Rapps, have strange rituals involving trees, and, most interestingly, the women possess the ability to have children well into their seventies. In the depths of the jungle Patchett has created a full, well-rounded ecosystem. And the science, sociology and ethics behind Swenson’s research also proves interesting.

Throughout State of Wonder the pacing is problematic and even extraordinary events seem banal when seen through Marina’s eyes. However, towards the end the pace picks up, the tone becoming almost sinister, helped along by some strange twists and coincidences (including a ‘romance’ that seemed out of place and manufactured). Patchett’s ideas are intriguing and the scenery lush, but ultimately State of Wonder was underwhelming and, surprisingly for what it promised, fairly lacklustre.