” ” It doesn’t matter how long we’re here or how often we come, we never fully acclimate. The foreignness of the place is always going to be a distraction for us. ” (Ch.8, p.223)
State of Wonder begins with an ambiguous letter bearing bad news. Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year-old research scientist, is in her office at a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota when Mr. Fox, the company’s CEO, with whom she has an unremarkable affair, arrives to tell her that her research partner, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died of a fever in a remote part of Amazon. The letter comes from Dr. Annick Swenson, a fierce if not irreproachable figure who has spent most of her life studying fertility in older tribal women. Now the 73-year-old Swenson holes up in a remote outpost in the Amazonian jungle, in seclusion and total discretion, where she is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will be worth a fortune, one that will allow women to bear children at an old age.
Dr. Swenson would never see herself as accountable to Vogel, any more than she would think of herself as working for them. She might develop a drug for the purposes of her own curiosity or the interest of science, but it would never occur to her that her work is at the expense of the company. (Ch.1, p.23)
Eckman had been sent out to determine the status of Swenson’s research on this long-overdue drug. But he was far from inured for the topical, insect-infested Amazon, being a native of Minnesota. His demise demands an answer. So Marina is dispatched to look for the reclusive Dr. Swenson and most importantly, to resolve the questions about Eckman’s death. Marin’a journey to Brazil is also one with personal repercussion. The anti-malarial medication mandated for the trip induces in her bad dreams that transport her back to childhood visit to Calcutta, where she was separated from her father. But the challenge brought forth by the jungle—the deceptively calm surface, the insidious, unseen danger behind thick green foliage of trees—confronts her fear.
It’s easy to become hypochondriacal out here but the more dangerous state is hypochondria’s opposite: the insistent voice that says you must be overreacting to things, and so in turn you begin to ignore real symptoms. (Ch.5, p.139)
Although State of Wonder is meanderous, taking a long time to get where it’s going, it has no shortage of emotional complexity that frames Marina’s journey. The jungle is more than a primordial landscape that bears possible medicinal power, but a space in which time, medical ethics, and capitalist economics are suspended and then sliced open for further consideration. The septuagenarian is a dragon of a lady who is both fierce and determined. She lies and deceives the better to protect her work, and to defend the Lakashi tribe’s indigenous way. The whole premise might seem far-fetched, but Patchett, in keeping her characters well-drawn, renders the story very credible. After all, it’s the mystery of creation of life that underpins it all. Patchett’s creation of this foreign, primitive culture and its symbiosis with the fauna of a lost world is one of the novel’s most captivating elements.
353 pp. Harper Collins. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]