Author Ann Patchett has the remarkable ability to not only make novels about the unlikeliest of subjects seem perfectly believable, but also to fill them with a depth of ideas and moral questions that you couldn't have seen coming. Her latest, State of Wonder, takes readers deep into the Amazonian rainforest and slowly strips away some of the secrets and assumptions we cling to in modern life.
When we meet Dr. Marina Singh, she is a pharmacologist studying cholesterol drugs in the safety of a Minnesota laboratory. Her lab partner, Anders Eckman, had been sent to Brazil months earlier to check on the progress of an uncommunicative field researcher. We learn early on that the research centers on an Amazonian tribe in which the women are able to continue to give birth into their 60s and 70s. When Marina's boss/lover receives a note from the researcher revealing Anders' sudden death and subsequent burial in the forest, he asks Marina to go down and finish the investigation. Anders' wife, unconvinced by the story the company is telling her, also wants Marina to search out the truth of what really happened to him.
If this all sounds like your standard mystery novel so far, I can assure you it isn't. Just as Marina first encounters the jungle as walls of identical green trees, "the same bit of scenery recycled indefinitely," with time she begins to adjust to life in the forest and to pick out the subtle truths of what is really happening all around her.
In the beginning, Marina tries to control and make sense of that which is wild and senseless. She thinks she can cure grief with answers, and apply Western logic to the overwhelming power of nature. Instead, she is left with more questions than answers. Even if we could have lifelong fertility, should we? How do we calculate the cost of saving a life, or a thousand lives? Do the brilliant have the same responsibility as others to be "good"? The book's surprising ending presents even more questions and would make for a great book club discussion.
In many ways, I saw this is a coming-of-age story in which a student used to memorizing other people's answers and pleasing authority figures finally learns to seek out her own truths. It transported me to another place for hours at a time, emerging from the oppressive heat and sounds of the jungle to cook dinner in my suburban kitchen and quickly wade back in. It will stay with me for a long time.
Ann Patchett is the author of five novels, including The Patron Saint of Liars and the PEN/Faulkner Award winning Bel Canto. A graduate of the University of Iowa's prestigious Writers' Workshop, she has also written two nonfiction works. Her memoir, Truth and Beauty, chronicled her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy. Patchett lives in Nashville. Visit her website.
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