“State of Wonder” is the remarkable new novel by Ann Patchett, writer also of the Orange Prize-winning “Bel Canto,” as well as “Patron Saint of Liars,” “Taft” and “The Magician’s Assistant.”
“State of Wonder” centers on women – the central figures are female scientists. The protagonist is 42-year-old research scientist Dr. Marina Singh, childless and single, whose whole life revolves around the Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company where she works. When her lab partner of seven years, Dr. Anders Eckman, dies in a remote part of Brazil in the Amazon jungle, she is persuaded to venture deep into the Amazon to find out exactly how he died and locate his remains. Anders had gone to Brazil to locate and report back on Dr. Annick Swenson, a colleague – in fact, Dr. Singh’s mentor in graduate school – who has been in the Amazon for 10 years and has been elusive about her findings. She has been working to discover the secret to the prolonged fertility of the women of an isolated Amazonian tribe, who give birth well into their 70s.
Even when Dr. Singh was in grad school, Dr. Swenson was aloof and unapproachable. The pharmaceutical company she works for has no idea exactly where she is. One of Anders’ tasks had been to find her. Now he is dead, and Marina plans to trace his footsteps.
The author writes brilliant scenes of Brazil and the jungles. As Marina explores life there, she senses herself changing. She hallucinates as a result of the malaria medication she is taking, but it is more than that. Life is different in Manaus, and she begins to find that new things are important to her. Finding and working with Dr. Swenson again, in particular, is changing the person Marina thought she had become.
The novel is thought-provoking and unpredictable and will keep the reader engaged to from beginning to end.
“State of Wonder” addresses such issues as women’s fertility and the new tendency of women to put off childbearing until later in life. Whether scientists should only observe and report or whether they have a duty to step in and change things is another issue Ms. Patchett examines.
If a scientist changes the tribal environment by healing someone, for example, then the nature of the tribe being observed has changed. The old healing ways may become suspect and what the scientists came to observe has changed. Although the pace may feel slow, this novel pulls the reader in with powerful questions, compelling characters and startling revelations.