Sunday, June 5, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder, the magical new novel by Ann Patchett, begins with news of a death. Anders Eckman, a big blond Minnesotan, has died in the Amazon. He was sent there by the pharmaceutical company for which he worked to track down a research team led by a single-minded and eccentric doctor who is doing ground-breaking research but sending no results to her big pharma backer. The news comes in a businesslike, emotionless letter--written on old-fashioned Aerogram stationary--from the researcher Anders was sent to locate. The recipient of the news is Marina Singh, Anders's office mate and friend.

Marina, fortyish and quiet, is asked by Mr. Fox, her boss, to help break the news to Anders's wife. Then she's asked to travel to the Amazon herself, to finish the work Anders began. She wants to do neither, but does both, because she's that kind of person, helpful and kind, and because she's been having a discreet affair with Mr. Fox, a gentle, if quietly demanding, widower twenty years older than Marina.

She gets her inoculations and begins a course of the anti-malarial drug that she knows from experience will give her screaming nightmares, and sets off for Manaus, Brazil, where Dr. Annick Swensen keeps an apartment. She will be in the city for weeks, spending time with, trying to gain the trust of, the Bovenders, the young Australian couple who act as caretakers--and gatekeepers--for the elusive Dr. Swensen.

Eventually Marina and Dr. Swensen meet in the city, and Marina follows the doctor to the secret research compound she maintains in a remote jungle outpost. Slowly, Marina begins to learn things about the research, and about the reasons for the secrecy. Dr. Swensen has been continuing the research of her mentor, begun many years earlier, on a tribe called the Lakashi, whose women  bear children until their sixties and seventies. Swensen is secretive because she's protecting the Lakashi from the hordes of researchers and reporters she knows would flood their quiet existence if word ever got out. Marina is drawn into life in the compound, helping in the research and to hide the location, even participating in the grand experiment.

Ann Patchett has a delicate touch with her characters, an ability to insinuate the reader one layer at time into the intricate depths of their psyches. Several characters by the end of the novel will come to behave in ways that, if one had only read the first few chapters, would appear out of keeping with their introductions. So subtle is Patchett's unfolding of the characters, however, that there is no dissonance at all for the reader who has followed along the whole way. 

Patchett's descriptions of the physical environment, from the bitter cold of a Minnesota winter to the smoggy heat of a Latin American city to the deep jewel colors and surreal flora and fauna of the deep Amazon jungle, are just as glorious as her characters. Each detail is rendered with such exquisitely rich precision as to make one long to experience it for oneself.

State of Wonder is a novel which lives up to its name. It is beautiful and funny and sad, with an ending that could not be more perfect. It's a novel that can be savored just as well in delicious solitude or in the company of a book group. 

Disclosure: In accordance with new FTC guidelines for bloggers I must let you know that I received a free review copy of this title.  My reviews are just that: reviews.  They are not endorsements, nor am I ever compensated for posting my opinion. 


readingromances said...

Stunning review! Very well written.

Jenn said...

Looks interesting