Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Pach

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I found myself reading STATE OF WONDER slowly and more slowly, allowing myself to sink into her depth of character, enjoying the deliberate pace of her revelation, reluctant to start another chapter until I had digested the one just finished. The book begins with Marina Singh, 42 years of age, a physician turned pharmacologist, agrees to go to the Amazon rain forest where her employers, a big Minnesota pharmaceutical company, are developing a promising new fertility drug. The researcher in charge of the study, seventy-something Dr. Annick Swenson, has cut off most communication, refusing all electronic contact, refusing even to reveal the location of her camp, relying only on the occasional letter to get carried down by boat to Manaus. The aerogramme that arrives as the book opens reports the sad news that Marina’s lab-mate Anders Eckman, who had been sent down some months before to investigate, has died of fever. Marina flies to Brazil to complete Anders’ report and find out the details of his death. What makes her quest doubly alarming is that the intimidating Dr. Swenson had been Marina’s supervisor years before at Johns Hopkins, when she had made a crucial mistake in the operating room that caused her to abandon the practice of medicine and turn to research, a trauma that lingers with her still.

She has a way of setting up a situation that you view with dread, only to shift it, open it, work her peculiar alchemy on it. The first hint of this is in a performance at the Manaus opera house, a La Scala in the midst of the jungle. Manaus already seems like an anteroom to Hell, a tawdry viewing-platform for tourists, and Patchett does not belittle the many dangers waiting in the Amazon jungle along its smaller tributaries. But she responds to its wonder also, starting with the night sky: “Beyond the spectrum of darkness she saw the bright stars scattered across the table of the night sky and felt as if she had never seen such things as stars before. […] She saw the textbook of the constellations, the heroes of mythology posing on fields of ink.” 

Marina Singh’s real exploration is her discovery of other people and of herself. Annick Swenson turns out to be a far more complex character than the forbidding paragon she thought she knew. Her immediate colleagues and the tribe they are studying form a fascinating interconnected society; both the ethnology and the medical research are pretty convincing, at least to a layman. There turn out to be reasons for Dr. Swenson’s secrecy, and moral issues that play an increasing part. Marina will find her endurance, skills, loyalties, and even her love tested. As in all her best books, Patchett gradually creates a special space, a kind of sacred enclave within the bounds of realism. Seen with a skeptical eye, some of what happens as the novel nears its climax may seem implausible, though it is certainly exciting. But Patchett banishes skepticism, a magician-monarch ruling over a land of wonder. What she enshrines there is deeply, movingly human.

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