Tuesday, October 4, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: A review

Ann Patchett had me at the first scene in her novel State of Wonder. The heroine of her story, Dr. Marina Singh, is a 42-year-old research scientist for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, who works, with her research partner Dr. Anders Eckman, in the rather unexciting field of cholesterol. But Eckman has been sent by the company to Brazil and as the story opens, Marina's boss and lover, Mr. Fox, appears in the doorway of her lab with an airmail letter informing the company that Dr. Eckman has died of a fever. Marina feels as though the world is collapsing, folding in on her.

Eckman has left a wife and three sons and Mr. Fox and Marina go to the home to break the tragic news. Mrs. Eckman is unable to accept that her husband is dead. She believes she would feel it if he were gone. She wants Marina to go to Brazil and find out what has happened. And this, as it happens, is exactly what Mr. Fox wants as well.

Eckman had been sent to Brazil to locate Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher in the employ of the drug company who is supposed to be developing a fertility drug for the company. Swenson has been uncommunicative and Fox doesn't know where progress on the drug stands - or, indeed, if there has been any progress. Eckman was supposed to find out, but since he is out of the picture, Marina, who was a long-ago medical student of Dr. Swenson's, is persuaded to take his place.

Things are complicated by Marina's personal history as the daughter of an Indian man and a white woman. Her father deserted the family early on and returned to India where he created a second family. Marina and her mother occasionally visited him there and the anti-malarial drugs which Marina had to take gave her terrible nightmares. Now, in preparation for her trip to Brazil, she's put on the drug again and the nightmares resume. They are debilitating.

Another complicating factor is that no one really knows where in Brazil Dr. Swenson and the tribe she lives with are located. When Marina arrives in the town of Manaus, which is the only address they have for Swenson, she has no idea how to proceed further. But she meets characters who are familiar with Swenson, including a couple who are housesitting her apartment there. After a few weeks, one night when she is attending the opera with that couple, Dr. Swenson herself turns up and the story really begins to come to life.

The drug research in the jungle brings up unexpected moral dilemmas and Marina finds that all is not exactly as it might seem and that many mysteries lurk among the trees with the insects, snakes, monkeys, and brilliantly colored birds.

This is the first Patchett book I've read so I can't compare it to her others, but its structure - at least in the first part - is somewhat like a meandering stream that keeps twisting back upon itself. The reader is not really sure where to focus her attention, but with the arrival of Dr. Swenson on the scene, the stream straightens out a bit and one can discern the plot. Dr. Swenson is a charismatic character and this time, unlike medical school, she brings out the best in her former pupil, Marina Singh.

Patchett is an artful writer who most likely has read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and has taken its lessons to heart. She's written a worthy successor to that long ago jungle trek. 

4 comments:

  1. Absolutely amazing, imaginative, unique story. Having just finished reading it, I'm in a state of wonder about how Ann Patchett came up with all of the wondrous aspects of the book. Almost as if she was eating some of the mushrooms she writes about! You won't be disappointed in reading this book while you will definitely be surprised to see how the story unfolds.

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    1. It is a wonderful read, a Pulitzer-worthy read in my opinion, Sverige

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  2. If you're looking for a smart, exciting Summer read, this book is for you. I gave it to my husband (who'd never read any of Ms. Patchett's books) and he, too, read it in one sitting. Ms. Patchett is at the top of her writing game with this one.

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