State of Wonder : A Novel

  • Ann Patchett
  • Harper Collins
  • 368 pp.

From the author of Bel Canto, a mysterious pharmacological quest deep in the Amazon.

[Note: Ann Patchett will be speaking tonight, June 8, at 7:00 pm at Politics & Prose.]

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

When Ann Patchett wrote her 2004 best seller Bel Canto, she took an historical incident as a point of departure and then created a story that was completely her own. In State of Wonder, she takes a literary point of departure, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, recasts the lead characters as women, and creates a vivid, intriguing story that provokes thought about morality, sacrifice, bioethics and struggles of conscience.

Pharmacologist Marina Singh receives a curt, barely informative message that a colleague of hers has died in the Amazon jungle. Singh, despite her name, was born and bred in Minnesota, and Minnesota is in her bones. Her colleague had been sent out to check on Dr. Annick Swenson, who is working in the Amazon developing a drug from natural sources, a drug that would keep women fertile into their 60s or 70s. Singh’s initial response is, “Now there’s a chilling thought.” But a male colleague explains to her that it would eliminate the need for expensive fertility treatments, saying “Ovum in perpetuity, menstruation everlasting,” as though menstruation everlasting would be a great idea. This and other flashes of Patchett’s humor light up this novel at other unexpected places, too, as when an African doctor greets Singh deep in the Amazon jungle with, “Dr. Singh, I presume?”

Singh flies to Brazil, and encounters mystery after mystery trying to discover what happened to her colleague, and to find out exactly what Swenson is doing. The drug company they all work for is funding the research, but the research, the location and any progress are all kept secret. Singh journeys deep into the Amazon jungle (up the Rio Negro, another reference to darkness), becoming transformed from someone too timid to ask difficult questions of an instructor or a boss, to a heroine who beheads and guts an 18-foot Anaconda to save a child from its crushing coils.

Patchett’s writing, often lyrical, is particularly effective when Singh arrives at Swenson’s camp: “In an instant the veil of insects lifted and Marina saw nothing as she had never seen nothing before. It was as if God Himself had turned out the lights, every last one, and left them in the gaping darkness of His abandonment.” But a few lines later, she writes: “Beyond the spectrum of darkness she saw the bright stars scattered across the table of the night sky and felt as if she had never seen such things as stars before. She did not know enough numbers to count them, and even if she did, the stars could not be separated one from the other, the whole was so much greater than the sum of its parts.” Anyone who has ever been dazzled by the array of stars far from the lights of civilization will likely be moved by that image.

The picky reader may be slowed down by a couple of factual problems; the opening passage of the book refers to an aerogram with a stamp on it, the stamp anchoring it to this world. Aerograms, thin blue airmail sheets that are folded up to be self-contained air letters, typically have the postage already imprinted to save on weight. They may occasionally bear stamps, but, just for the record, current aerograms from Brazil come with the postage already imprinted, and this story is firmly set in the Obama administration. Patchett also refers to the need for extra postage on aerograms elsewhere in the narrative. It’s probably fair to say that if something could possibly happen, then the author is allowed to make it happen, in which case Patchett gets a pass. However, when scientist Singh is looking at some fluttering insects that have an important place in the narrative, she thinks, “A butterfly rests with its wings open, and a moth rests with its wings closed.” It’s the other way around, which raises the possibility that a group of gifted scientists misnamed the new species of Lepidoptera they discovered.

For most readers, however, such problems are small. Patchett’s gift for combining the mythic with the practical, her ability to create memorable characters and truly ingenious plot twists make State of Wonder a rich and rewarding read.

Susan Storer Clark is a former broadcast journalist and retired government public affairs officer. She has just finished her first novel, with the working title “Scandal’s Child.”

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