State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Expect miracles when you read Ann Patchett’s fiction.”—New York Times Book Review
Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Ann Patchett returns with a provocative and assured novel of morality and miracles, science and sacrifice set in the Amazon rainforest. Infusing the narrative with the same ingenuity and emotional urgency that pervaded her acclaimed previous novels Bel Canto, Taft, Run, The Magician’s Assistant, and The Patron Saint of Liars, Patchett delivers an enthrallingly innovative tale of aspiration, exploration, and attachment in State of Wonder—a gripping adventure story and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of discovery and love.
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past.
Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations.
In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, and a neighboring tribe of cannibals, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side.
My take: This is just one of those books that provided an interesting premise - Dr. Anders Eckman is dead in the Amazon. Stated matter-of-fact by Dr. Swensen, an elusive researcher hiding deep in the jungle yet using all of the drug company's resources. Marina Singh is asked to find out exactly what Dr. Swensen is doing and what happened to Dr. Eckman's body and affects.
Knowing nothing about the Amazon and very little about Brazil. I didn't feel a strong pull to the protagonist but she provided eyes for me to see the Amazon where I wouldn't have them. The jungle, the indigenous natives, the hard shell insects constantly biting, the vivid colors all added texture to the story.
Once Dr. Singh reached Dr. Swensen, I was particularly drawn into the different characters. Dr. Swensen stayed true to her personality throughout. She was never particularly likeable but became more tolerable by the end. The story itself was interesting although not riveting. Honestly, it was the way the writer presented the information that kept me riveted and I really did like the ending.