In Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, a pharmaceutical researcher in Minnesota, Dr. Marina Singh, learns about the abrupt death of her colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman, from a mysterious fever. Anders was sent to the Amazon by Vogel Pharmaceuticals, the company that employs him and Marina, to bring back information about the progress of a “miracle” fertility drug being developed by Dr. Annick Swenson, who has all but disappeared in the jungle and has cut off most communucations. Following Anders’s death, Marina is dispatched to the Amazon by Vogel CEO (and Marina’s “boyfriend” or “lover”) Mr. Fox to find Dr. Swenson and report back on the state of her research…and to bring back Anders’s body and effects for his grieving family. Marina has more than a few misgivings about her trip, not the least of which is her history with the enigmatic Dr. Swenson. As a young obstetrics resident, Marina worked under Dr. Swenson. A tragic accident that occurs when Marina is under Dr. Swenson’s stewardship leads her to quit obstetrics and pursue pharmacology instead, and Marina is unhappy, perhaps even fearful, of reconnecting with her former mentor (and idol).
She travels to Manaus, Brazil, where she meets a guide of sorts, Milton, and the couple occupying Dr. Swenson’s apartment in Manaus, the Bovenders. The Bovenders are essentially Dr. Swenson’s gatekeepers, deflecting curious visitors who would disrupt her work. Eventually, Marina meets Dr. Swenson, who seems to have no recollection of Marina, and is allowed to travel with Dr. Swenson into the heart of the jungle to learn more about her research.
In the jungle, Marina learns a great deal about herself, Dr. Swenson, and the nature of pharmaceutical research and drug development outside the lab. Without giving too much away, I can tell you the book raises some very interesting points about capitalism, pharmacology, fertility, the Westernization of other cultures, and the eradication of disease. I’ve seen a few reviews place State of Wonder alongside Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but I would have to say that State of Wonder lacks the–well, darkness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Patchett tells Marina’s story with a sort of wry humor that her earlier novels (say, Run or Taft) lacked. Given some of the borderline ridiculous twists and turns the novel takes near the end, this dry humor keeps the narrative from becoming completely outlandish and overly sentimental.
While I frequently find myself listing Ann Patchett as one of my favorite writers, the truth is, I’ve only enjoyed a few of her novels (The Patron Saint of Liars and Bel Canto, although I hated the ending of Bel Canto). Now I have another one to add to the list. The thing is, I love the way she writes: the way she puts together a sentence, creates a world, and carries me away. What I tend to dislike about her work are (what I see as) unnecessary plot twists that pull me away from the storytelling. While some of the things in State of Wonder are fantastical, the book has a bit of that element even from the beginning as Marina faces her grief over the loss of her colleague and then her fear at confronting her old mentor and traveling to the jungle, so it never took me out of the story. Deep grief can easily put one in a state where nothing seems real, where anything (generally the worst things) seem possible. Instead, I was able to (somewhat) suspend my disbelief and stay with it until the end, which has a bit of a shock, although not a harsh one.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly; even during moments that had me rolling my eyes (and they come on fast and furious close to the end), I remained engaged. Highly recommended.