Friday, July 15, 2011

State of Wonder

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
HarperCollins Publishers, June 2011
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062049803
very highly recommended

Description from Cover:
Ann Patchett raises the bar with State of Wonder, a provocative and ambitious novel set deep in the Amazon jungle.
Research scientist Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have disappeared in the Amazon while working on an extremely valuable new drug. The last person who was sent to find her died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding answers to the questions about her friend's death, her company's future, and her own past.
Once found, Dr. Swenson is as imperious and uncompromising as ever. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina.
State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side.
My Thoughts:
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett is an atmospheric novel that opens in Minnesota and travels to the Amazon jungles of Brazil. In the opening we learn that a lab doctor, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died and been buried in the jungle. Eckman was sent down to Brazil to check on the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson's research in the development of a new drug. After his death, Eckman's lab mate, Dr. Marina Singh, is sent to Brazil to find out what happened to Eckman and to complete the task he had been charged with: getting answers from Dr. Swenson about her research. Marina knew Swenson years ago, as an instructor in medical school. This relationship was troubled and Marina is not looking forward to meeting Swenson again. 
Once Marina arrives in Brazil, readers will know that they are not in Minnesota anymore. Patchett does an excellent job describing the heavy heat and humidity, the raucous, blood-thirsty activity of the insects. Through Patchett's descriptions you can feel the oppressive heat and the torment from insect bites.  You will understand Marina's frustration as a couple Swenson has hired try to keep her from meeting the doctor and getting answers.
Swenson's research involves a fertility drug. There is a tree whose bark, when eaten, allows woman to have children well into their old age. The tree is only in this one area of the Amazon and only used by this one tribe. All of that explains the secrecy behind the location of Swenson's research lab, but also brings to mind questions about the exploitation of the indigenous people, their way of life, and their land by the pharmaceutical company.
From the opening you know you are in for a treat. Patchett's prose is exquisite. She is such a wordsmith it is a pleasure reading her writing. She can describe a scene and you will feel it as the characters do. The characters themselves are all fully realized. You believe that they could be real people thrust into this wondrous experience. Even when you are doubting the tree and it's bark, she manages to convince you through her words that it is real, that this all happened, and that Dr. Marina Singh was transformed in the jungles of Brazil.
My only complain, and it really isn't one, is that the end came so abruptly. I wanted more. I not sure if my desire for more would have improved the story, however, so perhaps it's just based on wanting more of Patchett's writing.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best
The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aero­gram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the en­velope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered. opening

There were more than thirty buildings on the Vogel campus, labs and office buildings of various sizes and functions. There were labs with stations for twenty technicians and scientists to work at the same time. Others had walls and walls of mice or monkeys or dogs. This particular lab Marina had shared for seven years with Dr. Eckman. It was small enough that all Mr. Fox had to do was reach a hand towards her, and when he did she took the letter from him and sat down slowly in the gray plastic chair beside the separator. At that moment she un­derstood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles. pg. 2

No one seriously thought the outcome of telling Dr. Swenson she needed to bring her research back to Minnesota would be Dr. Swenson packing her lab into boxes and coming home - not Anders, not Mr. Fox, not Marina. In truth, it wasn't even essential that she come back. Had she been willing to reopen the lines of communication, to prove that the drug was nearly completed, to let the company install a coterie of its own doctors who would give regular and accurate reports of the drug's progress, Vogel would have left her in her research station for years, pouring in cash from an opened vein. pg. 10

Dr. Swenson would never see herself as accountable to Vogel, any more than she would think of herself as working for them. pg. 22-23

Oh, Anders! To have been sent off on a mission you were never right for. To be regarded after your death as an error of judgment. "So now you'll find the right person."
"You," he said.
Marina felt a small jolt in the hand he was holding, as if something sharp had briefly stabbed through him and into her. pg. 24

"Their eggs aren't aging, do you get that? The rest of the body goes along its path to destruction while the reproductive system stays daisy fresh. This is the end of IVF. No more expense, no more shots that don't end up working, no more donor eggs and surrogates. This is ovum in perpetuity, menstruation everlasting." pg. 26

First things first, Marina made an appointment with an epidemiologist in St. Paul and got a ten-year vaccine for yellow fever and a tetanus shot. She got a prescription for an antimalarial, Lariam, and was told to take the first pill immediately. pg. 33

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

Glad to see you liked this one too!