Ann Patchett first made best-seller lists with her transcendent 2001 novel Bel Canto, the story of an international group of businessmen, diplomats and politicians — and one opera diva — held hostage by terrorists in the vice presidential palace of an unnamed Latin American country. In State of Wonder, Patchett returns to the jungle, this time to the central Amazon basin. But where Bel Canto was necessarily interior and psychological, State of Wonder unfolds across a vast but impenetrable landscape where the air "is heavy enough to be bitten and chewed," insects fly "with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses" of humans, and eagles swoop close enough that one can see "the expression on the face of the small monkey that dangled from its curving talons." There's a magnificent chapter set in an opera house, but the real point of this book is to get its protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, out of suburbia, away from her phone, and into "the beating heart of nowhere" — a jungle teeming with spiders, snakes, quicksand and cannibals.
Marina conducts statin research for a giant pharmaceutical company named Vogel, but when Anders Eckman, her friend and officemate, dies during an expedition to find rogue Vogel researcher Annick Swenson, everything changes. Swenson's jungle lab is so secret that even the CEO of Vogel has no idea where it is, and Swenson hasn't been heard from at all in more than two years. Marina's assignment is to fly to Brazil, discover where Swenson is hiding, and find out what has really happened to both Anders and the fertility drug Swenson has spent decades developing.
The difficulty of finding a laboratory hidden deep in the heart of Amazonian darkness and the death of the last person to attempt the mission aren't exactly inducements to adventure. But Marina has a more private reason for fearing this heroic quest, and unfortunately, it's the same reason why everyone else believes she is perfect for the task: Years earlier, when Marina was an obstetrics resident, Swenson had been her teacher and mentor. What the others don't know is the role Swenson played in the tragic mistake that drove Marina from medicine to pharmacology. Just the thought of encountering Swenson again gives her "the sensation of a cold hand groping for her heart."
Despite these objections, there's too much on the line for Marina to avoid a confrontation with the elusive and imperious Swenson: Without a body to bury, Anders' grieving wife can't bring herself to believe he's truly dead. "I just don't feel it," she tells Marina. "I would feel it, wouldn't I?"
And more prosaically, Vogel's stock price is inflated by the belief that Swenson is in the final stages of developing a drug that can extend fertility for decades beyond the normal age for menopause. "Pretend for a moment that you are a clinical pharmacologist working for a major drug development firm," Anders tells Marina before he leaves on his doomed journey. "Imagine someone offering you the equivalent of 'Lost Horizon' for American ovaries." It's a statement that explains any apparent lapses of logic attending a bald restatement of the book's plot. You don't have to believe there's a tribe in the Amazon where women continue to bear children into old age to be completely convinced that Big Pharma would write a blank check to fund a hidden Third World lab if such a drug might result.
What Marina encounters in Swenson's jungle is more than a medical mystery and more than an opportunity for Ann Patchett to unleash her dazzling descriptive powers on the exotic world of the Amazon. Marina's journey also poses some unsettling questions about the nature of memory; about what's universal, and what isn't, in relationships; about the sometimes competing claims of loyalty and love, and the terrible costs of both; about the right human attitude toward nature, and nature's indifference to human concerns. These themes could be illustrated by example after example from the book, but only at the risk of revealing far too much about a hurtling plot that's as much a page-turner as any Dan Brown potboiler.
State of Wonder is not a potboiler, however; it's a literary novel, never mind the fact that it currently sits at the top of virtually every bestseller list in the country. Fortunately, a book comes along every now and then that offers both an exciting story and intellectual undercurrent that tests what we think we know about the world. Of course, Ann Patchett has a long history of writing bestsellers that transcend reductive genres. State of Wonder may be her best one yet.
For more local book coverage — including an interview with Ann Patchett and an excerpt from State of Wonder — visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
Patchett will discuss State of Wonder at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, as part of the Salon@615 series at Nashville Public Library. The event is free and open to the public.
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