State of Wonder
How can doctors, scientists and a pharmaceutical company work together to discover the secret to lifelong fertility, if the secret is deep in an Amazon jungle and it is practiced by an isolated tribe called the Lakashi? Despite the lure, it’s an impossible venture, loaded with personal agendas, some noble, some not. In State of Wonder, Ann Patchett tells an exciting and strange story of business, research, medicine, and ethics, full of conflicted characters with cross-purposes.
Jim Fox is CEO of Vogel and his company has invested a tremendous amount of money to develop a fertility drug. Fox is a businessman and bottom line, he’s looking for profits. Dr. Annick Swenson, a brilliant doctor with long and prestigious credentials, is head of Vogel’s research team in the jungles of Brazil. It’s been years since she began this highly secretive study and Fox thinks it’s a little too secretive. Swenson has deliberately cut herself off from Vogel. Impatient, Fox sends Anders Eckman, a Vogel researcher, to Brazil for answers. When Fox receives a terse letter reporting Eckman’s death, he dispatches yet another Vogel employee to find out what happened. Before she can say no, Marina Singh takes off on a wild odyssey into the depths of the Amazon forests.
Patchett introduces many complicated relationships as the story progresses. The first thing we learn is that Singh is Fox’s mistress and that there is something off about their romance. In addition, Swenson was once Marina’s mentor, before Marina left the ob/gyn field in disgrace. Facing Swenson and dealing with her demanding personality will not be easy. Then there are Swenson’s bohemian gatekeepers, Barbara and Jackie Bovender, who live in Swenson’s apartment in Manaus and do their best to sidetrack Marina.
More questions arise in this excellent story as Marina learns about the research Swenson is conducting. Living in the jungle and among the Lakashi has Marina wondering about the relationship between modern medicine and the Amazon natives. Why not help them as much as possible? Dr. Swenson, still a mentor, is quick with an answer, “The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived,” she tells Marina. Later in the story, Swenson reminds her, “You can’t turn everyone you meet into an American.”
I really enjoyed reading State of Wonder. Besides the great plot, Patchett takes the reader into a part of the world most people have not visited. She shares the horror of the unimaginable dangers that lurk in the waters and on the ground and a sea of bugs that populate the air, just waiting for a meal. Unspecified fevers threaten everyone’s health and Marina worries about malaria. She shows how hard it can be to adapt to a different life, and also how easy it can be.
I also liked seeing how my first impressions of Patchett’s characters and their relationships changed over time. Most fascinating and frightening is Marina’s transformation, the longer she stays in the jungle. But it’s easy to cheer for Marina as she faces the demons of her past. Surprising and intense developments leave the reader to consider many possible outcomes and, even at the story’s conclusion, a couple loose ends remain untied, my favorite type of ending.
Patchett tells a terrific story with some great lines, many with subtle humor. My favorite? An adaptation of a famous line from the movie, Casablanca. “Of all the tributaries in all of the Amazon he had wandered onto hers.” Now that’s fun!
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