An Amazon Adventure, Replete With Love, 'Wonder'

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
 
State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
Hardcover, 353 pages
Harper
List Price: $26.99
Read An Excerpt

Ann Patchett, who held readers captive with Bel Canto, her 2001 novel about a famous opera singer and a group of international dignitaries taken hostage by Latin American terrorists, is back in form with her mesmerizing sixth novel, State of Wonder. Set in the Amazon rain forest, Patchett's new book is a dramatic, transportive adventure story that takes on issues of medical ethics, cultural respect, friendship, love and loyalty.

Patchett's appealing heroine is Marina Singh, a 42-year-old pharmacological researcher working in statin development for a Minnesota company called Vogel. Originally trained in obstetrics and gynecology, she quit medicine after buckling from the pressure of a difficult delivery late into her residency at Johns Hopkins. Twelve years later, her life takes another unexpected turn after she hears that her office-mate and friend, Dr. Anders Eckman, father of three small boys, has died in the Brazilian jungle. Anders, who was sent to check progress on research on an indigenous tree bark said to extend fertility indefinitely, called the substance "the equivalent of Lost Horizon for American ovaries."

The chilly, widowed 60-year-old CEO of Vogel, who also happens to be Marina's secret lover, sends her down to Brazil to find out what happened to Anders, and to investigate how far along the fertility research has come. The woman in charge, who has been dodging inquiries, is none other than Marina's difficult, imperious former medical school professor, Dr. Annika Swenson. When Marina finally manages to locate Dr. Swenson in Manaus, she notes that "she could not overcome the feeling that two very distant points in her life were now colliding in a way that should be relegated only to bad dreams."

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

Indeed, bad dreams plague the characters in State of Wonder — stimulated by anti-malarial drugs, jungle fevers and childhood traumas. In clear, crisp prose, Patchett captures the rain forest's oppressive heat and humidity, lurking snakes and "veil of insects" with an itchy immediacy. She imbues the Lakashi natives with an exoticism heightened by the somewhat disturbing fact that even scientists who spend years among them, like Dr. Swenson, fail to learn their language.

Patchett sets up a classic face-off between formerly timid Marina and her fearsome, uncompromising teacher. The two women debate their medical responsibilities toward the natives and the ethics of secretly diverting corporate funding to a worthier but less lucrative cause, discovered to be a serendipitous side-effect of the fertility-enhancing bark. They argue over Marina's imperative to stay and doctor her teacher — in need of medical care after having used herself as a test subject — and they disagree about who has rights to the beguiling deaf boy whom Dr. Swenson took in from a fierce neighboring tribe eight years earlier. Through all the moral battles, Marina heroically, faithfully tries to learn what really happened to her friend Anders.

You can't write about the jungle without evoking Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Patchett certainly goes there. She also tucks in multiple allusions to lost paradises and resurrections — with characters named Milton and Easter, and a parallel drawn between Marina's hellish pursuit of Anders with Orfeo's quest to bring Euridice back from the dead in Gluck's opera Orfeo and Euridice. In thrusting her heroine into this richly atmospheric heart of darkness, Patchett has written a wondrous profile in courage.

Excerpt: 'State of Wonder'

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
 
State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
Hardcover, 353 pages
Harper
List Price: $26.99

Chapter One

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."

"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 Harper.

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