State of Wonder (Review)

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State of Wonder
Ann Patchett, 2011
368 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
June, 2012
Once again, as in Bel Canto, Ann Patchett plucks individuals out of their natural element, drops them into an alien environment, then turns up the heat—in this case, quite literally, the suffocating heat of the Amazon River basin.

In doing so, Patchett turns in another exquisitely nuanced novel, combining horror, beauty, and romance.

The story opens as Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist from the cold, open plains of Minnesota, learns that a colleague has died on a fact-finding mission in the tropics of Brazil. Sent by her employer, a large pharmaceutical company, Marina heads down the Amazon to find out what happened.

As in all mythical journeys, Marina must confront and triumph over demons that lie in wait. The primary demon is Dr. Annick Swenson, who heads up the corporate research station where Marina's lab partner died. Brilliant, driven, and maniacal, Swenson is the despot of her isolated world, the center around which everyone and everything revolve. We're entering the literary territory of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Marina, who has always put her faith in data, finds the world of facts and ethics turned upside down. Is Dr. Swenson protecting the remote tribal people, who possess a stunning secret of extending fertility? Or is Swenson exploiting them on behalf of the corporation that funds her research? Whatever she's up to, Annik Swenson becomes the novel's most riveting character.

In spite of Dr. Swenson, snakes, cannibals, and suffocating heat, Marina achieves soulful tranquility—a state of wonder unknown in her previous 43 years. She settles into a near stupefying complacency, content as any of Odysseus's lotus-eating sailors.

It takes an unlikely twist of fate to jerk Marina back to reality and drive the novel toward its conclusion. Yet Patchett, ever the skillful storyteller, has laid her groundwork carefully, even slyly, to prepare for her plot reversal. She never permits the story to shift into melodramatic overdrive—it's a gorgeous achievement.

In the end Marina learns the hard lesson that victory comes with a heavy cost.

Book clubs will have terrific discussions parsing the ethics of corporate research in underdeveloped countries. And the story's end? It's anyone's guess: much, but not everything, is resolved. What will happen to Marina and Mr. Fox, Annick Swenson, and the research project? It will be great fun to talk and predict.

See our Reading Guide for State of Wonder.

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