STATE OF WONDER
by Ann Patchett
Harper Perennial, June 2011
Paperback, 353 pages
Marina Singh leads a comfortable life in Minnesota conducting pharmaceutical research within the safe confines of a lab. However, the pleasant monotony of her life is broken when her research partner, Anders, is sent to the Amazon to make contact with Dr. Swenson, a scientist conducting research and development on a fertility drug that will change the way women think about reproduction.
Anders’ mission, which should have taken no longer than two weeks, drags into months, and then one day a letter arrives, announcing Anders’ death in dissatisfyingly vague terms. At the behest of her boss, Marina is sent to Brazil to track down the reclusive Dr. Swenson, find out more information about how Anders died, and urge Dr. Swenson to quickly wrap up her work and return to the U.S. What follows is an exciting adventure down the muddy Rio Negro and through the lush, oppressive rain forest to a secret research station where scientists live alongside the indigenous Lakashi people and answers are hard to come by.
State of Wonder is the first book I’ve read by Ann Patchett, and I really liked it! She did a fantastic job describing the setting; I could see the river so murky Marina couldn’t see an inch beneath its surface, smell the air heavy with the scent of decay, hear the constant buzzing of tiny wings as insects swarmed her sweaty body, and imagine the sheer, infinite density of the stars on a night devoid of electric light.
The plot was really well paced, moving quickly along throughout most of the novel. Although this isn’t a thriller, there are a few twists to keep you guessing, and State of Wonder certainly had me turning pages at times! However, when the plot slowed down, it gave me the opportunity to think about some of the ideas presented in the novel, namely the implications of a drug that would allow women to continue bearing children until death. Although the assurance of being able to wait to have children would be a huge relief to countless women, should older women reproduce? Does fertility fade in old age for a reason?
There are a few things about Marina that I didn’t like, but overall she was a strong woman facing the doubts, insecurities, and fears I imagine many people in her life station feel. She’s made mistakes and she’s run away from things, but here she is! In the Amazon! Fighting off anacondas, recovering long-lost skills, and searching for the truth no one wants her to find out! Maybe this is just my penchant for finding-oneself stories showing itself, but I think she grows a lot through her experiences and returns to Minnesota a bit stronger and more whole than before.
I found State of Wonder to be a riveting, engaging read full of lush descriptions and intriguing plot elements.