State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett (2011)
HarperCollins (2011)
353 pp

I read and enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars, but in neither case did I fall in love and feel I needed to read more of her work. For whatever reason, I’ve passed on her other books and skipped Run when it came out a few years ago. In fact, I would have skipped her most recent, State of Wonder, had it not been for a personal interest: this book is set in the Amazon. I’ve explained before (here) that I spent a couple of years in the Amazon region of Brazil. I don’t read anything and everything set in the Amazon, but I trust Patchett enough to let her take me there again. She’s sensitive to physical details but, importantly, also to how those details are perceived in a disoriented mind.

There are many things that disorient in this book, and Patchett captures the feelings wonderfully. Before the book begins, Doctor Marina Singh has a quiet, safe job doing unremarkable research for Vogel, an American pharmaceutical company. She shares a small office with Anders Eckman, and she’s having a secret relationship with Vogel’s CEO, Mr. Fox (that’s what she calls him, being his employee before his lover), who is about 20 years older than her. That secret relationship is about the spiciest thing going for her, but even it is fairly unremarkable. Mr. Fox is a polite, unmarried man, respectful of Marina just as he’s discreet about dating one of his younger researchers. Patchett presents a loving relationship where Marina and Mr. Fox depend on one another and comfort one another, yearn for one another, but if you’re seeking flares of passion, this isn’t it — they’re kind of past that. Marina is very satisfied with her life; she’s eliminated a lot of risk. Outside the laboratory, winter is just about to give way to a cold spring in Minnesota.

But the very first sentence of the book announces the death of Anders Eckman. For the last few months he was travelling in Brazil, trying to find out whether any progress has been made on a project Vogel has been funding for years. Doctor Annick Swenson, the head researcher who has spend over half of her 73 years researching in the Amazon, has never been forthright about her progress, preferring to work in peace. They should trust she’s keeping up her end of the bargain and keep up theirs by not meddling and delaying progress by asking for progress reports. Mr. Fox doesn’t know if a drug has already been made or if the research has even progressed past stage one. In fact, Mr. Fox doesn’t even know where the research is taking place, so secretive is Dr. Swenson. He had had enough and he hoped to get some response by sending Anders Eckman to find Dr. Swenson, only now Eckman is dead. When Marina hears the news, “[t]here was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding.”

Dr. Swenson’s letter is our first real introduction to this mysterious woman:

Jim Fox,

The rain has been torrential here, not unseasonable yet year after year it never ceases to surprise me. It does not change our work except to make it more time-consuming and if we have been slowed we have not been deterred. We move steadily towards the same excellent results.

But for now this business is not our primary concern. I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner keeping with his Christian traditions. I must tell you it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr. Eckman’s mission, I assure you we are making strides. I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy. Despite any setbacks, we persevere.

Annick Swenson

Marina, who was once going into obstetrics, was once Doctor Swenson’s pupil. After an error during a high risk procedure, Marina bailed and became a pharmacologist. All along, though, it turned out Doctor Swenson was travelling to Brazil to research and develop a drug for fertility, the drug Vogel is paying a lot of money to develop, a drug so important they’ve given Doctor Swenson so much leeway they don’t even know where she is, but being in the dark has worn their patience thin. In light of the new tragedy of Eckman’s death, Mr. Fox is even more intent on finding out just what is going on. Eckman’s wife, whom Marina considers a friend, wants to find out what’s going on too, and even better if she can bring back Eckman’s body. Marina is the perfect candidate, albeit an unwilling one, to go following in Eckman’s footsteps and find out just what is going on in Brazil.

It’s a nicely developed story, even if for me it was a bit hard to believe in Mr. Fox’s insistence that Marina head to the jungle on her own. But eventually she strips the comfort of a cold spring in Minnesota for the disorientation of the Amazon jungle, made so much worse for all the sun and rain’s effects on the body and mind, a phenomenon Patchett captures beautifully here (“She wasn’t entirely sure if the preventative medicine that worked against insect borne diseases was making her sick or if she had in fact contracted an insect borne disease in spite of the medication.”).

Marina lands in Manaus after suffering from nightmares brought on by Lariam, the drug meant to protect against malaria. She also gets sick from other things and her time in Manaus waiting for Dr. is a hell in itself. One respite is when Marina goes to the opera to see Orpheus and Eurydice. Well, Marina comes to the obvious parallel quickly: “She was Orpheo, and there was no question that Anders was Euridice, dead from a snake bite. Marina had been sent to hell to bring him back.” Soon Doctor Swenson comes to Manaus for supplies, and Marina begins her trek into the jungle on the river. Of course this leads to obvious comparisons with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Doctor Swenson being the Kurtz character, though I’m not too sure this gets us as far as the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Whatever the case, I love the way Patchett describes the transitions from one world to the next:

In a matter of minutes the nameless river narrowed and the green dropped behind them like a curtain and the Negro was lost. Marina had thought that the important line that was crossed was between the dock and the boat, the land and the water. But as they glided between two thick walls of breathing vegetation she realized she was in another world entirely, and that she would see civilization drop away again and again before they reached their final destination.

I hesitate to go much further and follow Marina into the jungle in this post, but I did enjoy it. Her relationship with Doctor Swenson is interesting and develops in a natural unease as they battle back and forth over how far one should go for science and what is the best way to interact with the Lakashi, the Amazon tribe where women remain fertile throughout their life, inspiring Doctor Swenson’s work and Vogel’s interest. Naturally, Doctor Swenson and the few other researchers are keeping secrets from Vogel, so I suppose I should keep them from you. Suffice it to say, their progress has been great indeed, and I enjoyed watching Marina’s growing awareness and fear.

But just as she’s becoming happy in her surroundings, which she initially felt was hell’s epicenter, Marina has another descent even deeper and Patchett, for me, fully realized hell there. I found it beyond excruciating and it showed me just how emotionally involved I had become.

Stepping back from my emotions for a second, I believe this book will not please everyone as it pleased me. Patchett is a fine writer, and I don’t think that can be disputed well. She’s just excellent at the slight turn of phrase that illuminates moments of shock or surprise. Besides the folding she describes when Marina finds out Eckman is dead, I also enjoyed when Marina delivered a baby and was surprised because there was suddenly “an entire boy.” I can related to that bafflement, as strange as it might sound, and the shock as Patchett described it was perfect. But, as I mentioned earlier, there are some bits that trouble those who want their fiction “real,” that is, free from conveniences meant to further the plot (why would Mr. Fox send his lover to the jungle right after hearing his other employee just died there?) and free from things that are a bit out-of-this-world (like the Lakashi’s remarkable and frightening capacity to bear children, among other things).

Furthermore, while I don’t think the questions posed in this book merely serve to make the characters or plot interesting, neither is this exactly a book of ideas. Patchett, thankfully, doesn’t simplify things by making this book a criticism of pharmaceutical companies; she also doesn’t get bogged down in moral questions of science and humanity and how one engages with another people without interfering in their way of life. Those elements are there, but the characters are developed enough they come off as real, and we can sympathize with their viewpoints. But some might want a more nuanced discussion of these issues or might wish to tie them to the structure of the book. I don’t think this is the book for that. Rather than examining modern humanity, Marina’s several journeys into hell are more personal. Still, it makes excellent, smart storytelling.

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