After reading her lovely Bel Canto earlier this year, I was incredibly curious to see whether Ann Patchett’s brand new State of Wonder would hold up to the great reviews it was receiving. Well, I loved it.
The Heart of Darkness-style plot centers on protagonist Marina Singh, a doctor at a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. Vogel, the pharmaceutical company, currently has a team working in the jungles of the Amazon, studying a tribe (the fictional Lakashi) in which the women are able to bear children from puberty till death. Thinking it will make Vogel a fortune and revolutionize fertility treatment, the firm has extended every resource to the head doctor on the project, Annick Swenson. But when, after five years working full-time in the jungle, Swenson fails to report any progress to Vogel’s satisfaction, the firm sends Dr. Anders Eckman to do reconnaissance. Unfortunately, three months after that, Swenson sends a letter to Vogel announcing that Dr. Eckman has died of a fever. This is where we come in. Marina is sent to the Amazon to obtain information on Eckman’s death and continue the work of goading Dr. Swenson into producing results.
Really, the story is about how Marina Singh, forty-two-year old medical doctor, grows up. The book is rife with people and plants and animals that are aggressively alive and growing, and Marina is one of them. Though Marina is responsible, intelligent, and conscientious, she is, at the start of the novel, fundamentally insecure. She is submissive to a fault. Her romantic relationship with her much-older supervisor, Mr. Fox, is one that is revealed to be based more on Marina’s longing for a responsible male caretaker than anything else. (Yes, she has Daddy Issues.) She feels out-of-place in her native Minnesota, because she is half Indian and doesn’t blend in with the fair, blond Minnesotans of Scandinavian descent. She has nightmares about being abandoned by her father. She feels like a partial failure as a doctor, because she started out in ob/gyn but left the program after making a painful mistake during a caesarian. At that time, she was a hero-worshipping resident working under Dr. Swenson. This complicates Marina’s emotional state as she tries to locate Dr. Swenson and wonders whether Swenson will remember her, and if so, with what opinions. Child-like, she ventures into the jungle.
Dr. Swenson occupies a unique position in the book’s social grid, neither blending in with the Lakashi tribe nor acting as a loyal agent of Vogel’s. She has her own agenda, which does not become clear until we’re close to the end. In the meantime, Patchett builds her into a persona we can mostly recognize: the professor who was so intelligent, so intense, you hung on her every word, but were simultaneously terrified would expose your intellectual weaknesses. Marina, at the age of 42, still feels that Dr. Swenson stands in judgment of her, to the point where Swenson becomes something almost superhuman in Marina’s view:
‘Are you coming, Dr. Singh?’ Dr. Swenson called out. She had gone around a corner or stepped into a building. Her voice was part of the the night. It came from nowhere. Are you coming, Dr. Singh? She would dip so quickly into a patient’s room that suddenly the residents would lose their bearings. Had she gone to the right or the left?
In her mystery and elusiveness, the character of Swenson is an excellent quarry for Marina and the reader.
And all the while this power struggle is playing out, we and Marina are surrounded by the ravaging beauty of the Amazon. State of Wonder, like Bel Canto, has the power to stop time with its descriptions of certain moments, whether we’re in an opera house marveling at the contrast between human civilization and nature’s savagery, or on a boat watching someone wrestle an anaconda with his bare hands.
Though the book briefly critiques the workings of United States pharmaceutical corporations, it is not a politically-minded book, nor is it a study of how predominantly white wealthy countries exploit weaker communities, though that plays a role as well. The Lakashi are present mainly as part of the scenery, which may disappoint some readers who might be looking for a morality tale. These issues are certainly present in the background, but Patchett does not even try to answer any questions, and sometimes even the decisions of the main characters remain unjudged and ambiguously moral.
I enjoyed the ending, which, though it seemed to rush over me more quickly than I was expecting, was full of some really juicy implications for Marina’s future. Patchett could have fleshed these out more, I suppose, but I always respect an author’s ability to stop writing when her story is finished, even if there are other stories she could also have told. If you haven’t read State of Wonder, but plan to, try to push back against the book’s roaring pace and hold yourself to a walk. It’s worth it to fully take in all the sights and sounds.