State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A letter arrives at Marina Singh’s pharmaceutical lab informing her company of the death of her co-worker, Anders Eckman. At the firm’s request he had gone to the Amazon to check on the research progress on a drug the company was funding, research being done by Annick Swenson. There are few details other than he died of a fever and was buried onsite. Marina’s boss (and lover), Mr Fox as he is known, and Anders wife (who still believes he is alive) both ask her to go to Brazil to find the truth. Marina can hardly say no, yet this trip brings to life her buried past. Before she studied pharmacology, she was an obstetrics resident under Dr. Swenson until she left the residency after performing an emergency C-section that resulted in a disfigured child.
As she journeys to Brazil, it is not a state of wonder we expect but a bad ending. She loses her luggage. She is stalled by a young couple, the Bovenders, who tend Dr. Swenson’s Manau apartment while she is in the jungle. Finally, she goes upriver with Dr. Swenson against her wishes into the heart of the Amazon rain forest if not the “heart of darkness”. Her arrival feels Conrad-esque, occurring at night, complete with natives who steal her belongings, and warnings of well camouflaged venomous snakes. She ends up staying with a deaf boy who had previously stayed with Eckman, Easter. Easter, at death’s door, was left with Dr. Swenson by a neighboring cannibalistic tribe.
Yet she survives and embarks on a journey of discovery that will involve a “descent into hell” (language used by Marina) at the end and yet also is filled with wonder. It turns out Dr. Swenson is only one of a number of researchers studying a small plot of trees visited by a unique species of moth and surrounded by psychedelic mushrooms. What’s more, the native women gnaw the bark every five days and continue to be fertile and bear children into their sixties and beyond. Dr. Swenson, experimenting on herself, is also pregnant at 73. But the compound they’ve isolated has other properties of global importance, which is why Dr. Swenson has stalled this research. Marina also confronts her past when she is called on by Dr. Swenson, debilitated by her pregnancy, to perform a C-section on a native woman facing a breech birth.
In the edge-of-your-seat climax, she learns the truth about Eckman, whose fate is wrapped up with that of the deaf boy, Easter. Like all of Patchett’s books that I have read, there were twists at the end, but I think ones that were better anticipated and coherent than in some of her works. And like all Patchett’s books, her writing is beautifully evocative and descriptive and her characters finely drawn in ways that explore the depths and complexities of the human condition. Of those I’ve read, I thought this one of her best.