State of Wonder

Il Campo in Siena, Italy

When I was in Siena, Italy last week with the WXXI Travel Club, I picked up a copy of an historical novel by Marina Fiorato.  Called Daughter of Siena, it traces the fate of a young woman in the Tuscan hill town during the Palio, a chaotic annual horse race in which jockeys circle the town’s central piazza.  Set in 1723, the main character watches her betrothed die during the event. That’s how it starts.  When I began reading, I was excited to recognize scenes from the book, from the piazza Il Campo to the black and white cathedral on the hill.  The plot was bizarre enough for me to endure 380 pages of wooden dialogue and two dimensional characters. Three hours later, I realized this was a chunk of my life I would never get back. I wouldn’t recommend it.

 In this week’s Time magazine, essayist Nancy Gibbs admits she’s more likely to read trashy fiction in the summer. Me, too, although I sometimes wonder at my appetite for brain candy when there are so many better options.  But what’s “better?”  Sometimes, for me it’s the sound of waves on the beach and books I know are deliciously low from page one.

Summer is also a great time to revisit old friends; the Jane Austen novels, The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw, Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson (out of print for a long time and recently reissued as a YA novel), and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. (In my opinion, his newest novel Freedom isn’t nearly as good as The Corrections, a funny tale of weird family dynamics and the power of love. ) In books that click with me, the prose sounds like music. I return to them again in the way some people listen to favorite symphonies.


The best book I read on the trip to Italy was the new Ann Patchett novel, State of Wonder. (You may have heard Bob Smith’s recently interview with the author on 1370 Connection.)  In State of Wonder, a scientist embarks on a journey to the Amazon to search for a missing colleague.  Mysterious, original, and beautifully written, I devoured everything except for the event which starts on page 349 (in my copy) which seemed shoehorned in for no good reason. 

Early in the story, the main character, Marina Singh, heads for the tropics.  Suffocating from heat, humidity, and biting insects, she walks into a opera house for a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice.  

“The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out,” Patchett writes, “and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival.” 

Kind of like reading a book.