When you see the photo of Ann Patchett on the book jacket of her latest book, “State of Wonder,” it’s hard to believe someone so lovely and feminine could write a book describing some horrific images. I guess that is the power of imagination and skillful writing which she has proven in her previous books, most notably “Bel Canto” (2001 Winner of PEN/Faulkner Award).
The main character in “State of Wonder” is Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year old research scientist who does what has been described as “unremarkable” cholesterol research for a large pharmaceutical company in Eden Prairie, Minn. She is also having an affair with the company’s CEO, Mr. Fox, who comes across as bland as her tedious research. In the opening paragraph, Mr. Fox informs Marina that her research assistant, Anders Eckman, has died mysteriously in a remote part of Brazil. Eckman was sent there to report on the progress being made by Dr. Swenson in her quest for a fertility drug that could make the company billions.
After Marina and Mr. Fox visit Eckman’s widow to tell her of her husband’s death, (by way of a very brief letter and no explanation) Marina, with great trepidation, succumbs to Mr. Fox’s request that she go to Brazil to determine how Eckman died. The widow’s plea for an explanation and the sight of his three small boys, as well as concern for her former research partner, causes Marina to accept the assignment she feels totally unsuited for. And with that her unremarkable life takes a twist and turn she could never have imagined.
In a small tributary of the Amazon, the state of wonder kicks in as she begins a vivid and emotional trip. Actually, even sooner as her plane lands, Marina imagines that “every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.” As one reviewer comments, “Ms. Patchett’s true genius is her ability to write about situations that truly stretch incredibility but you end up believing every word.”
In order to understand the circumstances of Eckman’s death, Marina must first find Dr. Swenson and here a sub-plot develops. We discover that Marina and Dr. Swenson have a history dating back to Marina’s medical school days — a traumatic history Marina has tried to forget, but now it resurfaces with a vengeance. Dr. Swenson does not welcome any visitors but she comes to trust Marina with her closely guarded research of the Lakashi tribe in which women continue to ovulate until their death, producing children well into their 60’s and 70’s. Patchett’s natives are only semi-human; they don’t possess civilized language but make sounds less like words and more like the call and answer of fish. But deep in the jungle we finally discover the secret of their fertility — a visual image that may continue to haunt you long after you read the book.
Meanwhile, not far up the river in another tributary is the tribe of sinister cannibals who present yet another threat, as if the cloud of insects, snake-infested rivers and malarial swamps are not frightening enough. The suffocating atmosphere is integral to the story where the jungle could be considered a character in itself.
This has been called a novel of darkness to light as Marina tries to find answers for Eckman’s family while navigating her inner personal journey with as many twists and turns as the Amazon itself. If you like adventure, something out of the ordinary and great escape this might be the book for you.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love” praises Patchett, saying, “Her moral code after all thrums throughout her novels — where characters are often called upon to summon up their decency, take a bold action and shift forever some stale old paradigm of power.” Marina certainly achieves that in “State of Wonder.”
Patchett lives in Nashville Tenn., where she is co-owner of Parnassus Books. For more information and a list of all her books, visit www.annpatchett.com.
• Former bookstore owner Vy Armour has been a resident of Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 20 years. She is an adjunct instructor in communications at the University of Phoenix and reviews books on her blog, http://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.