State of Wonder
Ann Patchett
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Buy *State of Wonder* by Ann Patchett online

State of Wonder
Ann Patchett
Harper Perennial
384 pages
May 2012
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Imagine if a woman could put off her reproductive system for as long as she wants so that she could always have children. It’s a scenario that forms the bedrock of this novel as reclusive scientist Annick Swenson, ensconced in the Amazon jungle, hopes to capture the attention of the unspoiled nature of her subjects: a tribe where women go on bearing children until the end of their lives because their eggs refuse to age.

Dr. Swenson is well-aware of the potential of the drug she’s developing, but she’s also been frustratingly absent, refusing to communicate at any length about her research with Vogel Pharmaceuticals, the company poised to make millions from the discovery. There’s no indication that Annick Swenson actually reads the letters sent by CEO Mr. Fox outlining her continuing obligations and commitment to the project.

When Fox brings co-worker Marina Singh a blue, half-folded letter from Dr. Swenson with news that fellow employee Anders Eckman is dead, and that she and her colleagues have chosen “to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions,” Fox decides to send Marina to the Amazon. Positive that Swenson will listen only to her, Marina is to fly to Manaus and go to Dr. Swenson’s apartment, confirm Eckman’s death, then finish his work.

As a fresh wave of grief enfolds Karen, Anders' wife, fate sets Marina on a path toward enlightenment, her worldview forever juxtaposed with her unresolved past. Like a dark cloud, “a great lumbering gait” sleeping inside her shifts and stretches, centered on a tragedy that happened when she was a medical student. The years after the failed surgical procedure and its terrible outcome have done little to assuage Marina’s sense of shame and loss of confidence.

Rich and imaginative, filled with a Conradian sense of grandeur, Patchett’s seductive, persuasive tale has Marina landing in Manaus plagued by sweat-soaked dreams of her father. Never have her lungs taken in so much oxygen and moisture. Barraged by flying insects and heat while led by her driver to the pied-à-terre of beaming and suntanned Australians Barbara and Jackie Bovender, Marina wanders the city, hoping she might be struck by some piece of inspiration that will lead her in the direction of Dr. Swenson. The rain blinds in torrential downpours, turning streets into wild rivers. Marina must learn how to survive in a jungle from different from that of her childhood, but a jungle nevertheless.

The novel moves forth like a giant force of nature, the author displaying her considerable gift for pointed dialogue and dispassionate social comment as she draws us into the sights, sounds and smells of the Amazon while painfully detailing the reproductive endocrinology of the fire-juggling, fiercely screaming Lakashi people. Dr. Swenson eventually appears, a woman competitively fearless who sees the world without limitations. She and Marina forge a new alliance while Marina gives herself over to the force of the Amazonian river as it pulls her into the mystery of Anders fate.

In this novel of great passion, Patchett builds her exotic scenes against a background of insects that click and vibrate in distinct sets of messages and snakes wrapped and tangled like vines. The high, hot sun pummels Marina but she blossoms, giving herself over to the exotic dark depths of the river as it pulls her toward a tumultuous and exciting undercurrent of self-discovery.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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