'State Of Wonder' Deftly Twists, Turns Off The Map

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
Hardcover, 368 pages
Harper
List Price: $26.99
Read An Excerpt

It's not often that a novel leaves me (temporarily) speechless. But Ann Patchett's new novel isn't called State of Wonder for nothing, because that's exactly the state I've been in ever since I first opened it. The numbness has worn off by now, but for days, all I could say to friends who asked me about it was the one-word review "Wow."

If you're familiar with Patchett's work, particularly her most famous novel, Bel Canto, you know that her imagination roams far afield without sacrificing authenticity or lyrical power. The idea of terrorists invading the South American estate of an opera-loving Japanese businessman sounds like a premise for a disposable thriller; in Patchett's hands, of course, it turned out to be a riveting mediation on how love can reveal itself in unexpected human and artistic forms. State of Wonder revisits the South American locale and even features a key scene that takes place in the Manaus Opera House deep in the Amazonian rain forest of Brazil. Otherwise, the basic plot of State of Wonder is more directly indebted to those classic tales where Western explorers delve deep into the primitive "off the map" places left on the planet and in their own psyches. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the main inspiration here, but old English majors will catch references to other "gone native" tales like Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, where an adventurer marooned in the Brazilian jungle consoles himself, as Patchett's characters do, by reading a mildewed collection of the works of Charles Dickens.

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto, which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award.

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto, which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award. Melissa Ann Pinney hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Ann Pinney

The gist of the storyline of State of Wonder is this: Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year-old research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, is sent to Brazil to locate the remains of her deceased lab mate — a nice family guy who was himself sent into the rain forest months earlier to find another employee, the reclusive Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson has been in the wild 10 years, working to unlock the secret to the prolonged fertility of an isolated Amazonian tribe. The women of that tribe give birth well into their 70s, and if the fertility chemical found in a rare tree bark can be distilled and made available back in the States, it will be, as Marina's deceased co-worker once said, "menstruation everlasting ... the equivalent of Lost Horizon for American ovaries." Marina is an ideal candidate for what turns out to be a female explorer tale because she's so alone: Apart from a secret tepid affair with her boss, the most profound human connection she has had for years has been the daily small talk she shared with her dead colleague. With so little to lose, Marina sets off for the Amazon, dully suspecting that what awaits her there may well be "the horror, the horror."

Over half of State of Wonder is devoted to Marina's struggles in the rain forest, and one of the miracles of this novel — at least to a non-nature enthusiast like me — is just how inexhaustibly enthralling Patchett's descriptions of the flora, fauna, ants and anacondas are. Here's a snippet of a description of Marina walking out of the airport in Manaus and following her driver to his car:

The outside air was heavy enough to be bitten and chewed. Never had Marina's lungs taken in so much oxygen, so much moisture. With every inhalation she felt she was introducing unseen particles of plant life into her body, tiny spores that bedded down in between her cilia and set about taking root. An insect flew against her ear, emitting a sound so piercing that her head snapped back as if struck ... They were not in the jungle, they were in a parking lot.

Similarly, the characters Marina stumbles upon in the Amazon are uncharted worlds unto themselves: There's a strange young slacker couple who act as gatekeepers for Dr. Swenson; a deaf native boy named "Easter" whom Marina comes to cherish as a son; and the imperious Dr. Swenson, the center of the mysteries, who holds herself and her colleagues to almost suicidally high standards of self-denial. Even with such a relatively limited cast of characters, Patchett keeps the plot twisting, turning, like one of those slithery anacondas, until the very last pages. This is a masterpiece of a novel about the awful price of love and the terror of its inevitable loss. As much as readers will surely come to admire Marina for her explorer's bravery, we should also applaud Patchett for her own fearlessness in expanding the terrain of the possible in storytelling.

Excerpt: 'State Of Wonder'

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aero­gram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the en­velope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.

"What?" she said finally.

He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all he could say was, "It's snowing."

State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
Hardcover, 368 pages
Harper
List Price: $26.99

"I heard on the radio it was going to." the window in the lab where she worked faced out into the hall and so she never saw the weather until lunchtime. She waited for a minute for Mr. Fox to say what he had come to say. She didn't think he had come all the way from his office in the snow, a good ten buildings away, to give her a weather report, but he only stood there in the frame of the open door, unable either to enter the room or step out of it. "Are you all right?"

"Eckman's dead," he managed to say before his voice broke, and then with no more explanation he gave her the letter to show just how little about this awful fact he knew.

There were more than thirty buildings on the Vogel campus, labs and office buildings of various sizes and functions. There were labs with stations for twenty technicians and scientists to work at the same time. Others had walls and walls of mice or monkeys or dogs. This particular lab Marina had shared for seven years with Dr. Eckman. It was small enough that all Mr. Fox had to do was reach a hand towards her, and when he did she took the letter from him and sat down slowly in the gray plastic chair beside the separator. At that moment she un­derstood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles. Anders Eckman, tall in his white lab coat, his hair a thick graying blond. Anders bringing her a cup of coffee because he'd picked one up for himself. Anders giving her the files she'd asked for, half sitting down on the edge of her desk while he went over her data on proteins. Anders father of three. Anders not yet fifty. Her eyes went to the dates — March 15th on the letter, March 18th on the postmark, and today was April 1st. Not only was he dead, he was two weeks dead. They had accepted the fact that they wouldn't hear from him often and now she realized he had been gone so long that at times he would slip from her mind for most of a day. The obscurity of the Amazonian tributary where Dr. Swenson did her research had been repeatedly underscored to the folks back in Minne­sota (Tomorrow this letter will be handed over to a child floating downriver in a dugout log, Anders had written her. I cannot call it a canoe. There never were statistics written to cover the probability of its arrival.), but still, it was in a country, it was in the world. Surely someone down there had an Internet connec­tion. Had they never bothered to find it? "Wouldn't she call you? There has to be some sort of global satellite—"

"She won't use the phone, or she says it doesn't work there." As close as they were in this quiet room she could scarcely hear his voice.

"But for this—" she stopped herself. He didn't know. "Where is he now?" Marina asked. She could not bring herself to say his body. Anders was not a body. Vogel was full of doctors, doctors working, doctors in their offices drinking coffee. The cabinets and storage rooms and desk drawers were full of drugs, pills of every conceivable stripe. They were a pharmaceutical company; what they didn't have they figured out how to make. Surely if they knew where he was they could find something to do for him, and with that thought her desire for the im­possible eclipsed every piece of science she had ever known. The dead were dead were dead were dead and still Marina Singh did not have to shut her eyes to see Anders Eckman eating an egg salad sandwich in the employee cafeteria as he had done with great enthusiasm every day she had known him.

"Don't you read the reports on cholesterol?" she would ask, always willing to play the straight man.

"I write the reports on cholesterol," Anders said, running his finger around the edge of his plate.

Mr. Fox lifted his glasses, pressed his folded handkerchief against the corners of his eyes. "Read the letter," he said.

She did not read it aloud.

Jim Fox,

The rain has been torrential here, not unseasonable yet year after year it never ceases to surprise me. It does not change our work except to make it more time-consuming and if we have been slowed we have not been deterred. We move steadily towards the same excellent results.

But for now this business is not our primary concern. I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions. I must tell you it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr. Eckman's mission, I assure you we are making strides. I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy. Despite any setbacks, we persevere.

Annick Swenson

Excerpted from State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Copyright 2011 by Ann Patchett. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.

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