"State of Wonder" explores scientific and personal progress

By Carolyn Williams

Staff Writer

Ann Patchett’s sixth novel, “State of Wonder,” is a decided departure from her previous body of work. Best known for her beloved “Bel Canto” and her memoir, “Truth and Beauty,” Patchett explores a new world (literally) in “State of Wonder,” delving deep into the Amazon in search of scientific progress and personal growth.

Marina Singh is a middle-aged doctor employed by the Minnesota pharmaceutical firm Vogel, where she does some mild-mannered studies of cholesterol levels until she receives news which permanently alters the course of her life. Her lab partner, Anders, has perished while on an assignment for the company in the Amazon. The firm is forced to send a replacement: Marina.

Mr. Fox, the bland, suit-wearing corporate head of Vogel (and coincidentally Marina’s equally bland, older lover) has chosen Marina as Anders’s replacement because of her relationship to the mission itself. Vogel has been funding the noted scientist Annick Swenson’s extremely secret work for upwards of seven years, and the company has decided that Swenson’s freedom has gone on long enough. Anders was sent to check up on the progress of the development of Swenson’s purported Amazonian fertility drug. As Swenson’s former pupil, Marina is theoretically the most likely to be able to coax some information out of her. However, because the intractable Swenson played a critical role in an accident that derailed Marina’s career, Marina herself is not very confident about her prospects.

Upon arriving in Brazil, Marina promptly realizes that she has lost her luggage, forcing her to literally start from scratch in the city of Manaus. She has to wait weeks before Swenson returns with supplies before she can access the well-hidden tribe of the Lakashi people. In this tribe, due to an extremely rare tree bark, women are able to give birth well past menopause, a fact which has unheard of potential for fertility drugs and is the subject of Swenson’s extensive research. As she becomes more comfortable in her own skin, Marina allows herself to grow and to explore the wild possibilities of the jungle. The trip she never wanted to make becomes the one which finally acquaints her with her true self.

While not the magical, lyrical beauty of “Bel Canto,” “State of Wonder” is still a very worthwhile read. Patchett keeps her readers on their toes between swarms of insects, cannibal tribes, the truly terrific character of Swenson, anacondas, things that go bump in the night and a completely unexpected ending. If perhaps the scope of this adventuresome novel detracts from Patchett’s brilliance as a writer, Marina’s experience does, at times, redeem the book as it reveals the state of wonder she finds in the jungle.

(Visited 21 times, 1 visits today)