I once knew a botanist whose idea of heaven was to find secluded areas full of new vegetation – plants undiscovered, unknown – a paradise of discovery. Of course, if this place had 27 different kinds of mosquitos, snakes, and no running water – all the better. Not my idea of fun. But, thankfully, explorers are still willing to go into the obscure sites, and in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, they are subsidized by the pharmaceutical companies.
Patchett stirs the action immediately with news that a researcher recently sent into the Amazon jungle to check on promising research on a new fertility drug has mysteriously died. With little information forthcoming from the feisty seventy-year-old in charge of the project, Dr. Swenson, who continues to run up bills without sending back samples, the phramaceutical company’s VP decides to send Dr. Marina Singh to the jungle to investigate exactly what is going on. So starts a saga of jungle lore – complete with cannibals, torch-bearing natives, rivers full of anacandas, malaria-breeding mosquitos, and mysterious trees with the promise of a cure.
Patchett knows how to tell a story. If you’ve read Bel Canto or Run, you know how she can weave unlikely characters and possibilities together, and even give you a surprise now and then, as she holds you a captive reader. State of Wonder, although a little hokey and conveniently melodramatic at times, is no exception; I couldn’t put it down and read it in a day – nonstop.
Whether or not Patchett did her research, her descriptions of the jungle are not only plausible but downright convincing. With all the harrowing close-calls poor Marina Singh had to endure, it’s unlikely any reader would want to consider it as a travel destination. And the characters, as dysfunctional as they may be personally, all work together: the Bovenders, Australian surfers looking for an “easy gig” while waiting for the waves in Peru; Mr. Fox, the uptight administrator hoping no one will notice his feelings for his subordinate, Marina; Dr. Swenson, the tough old broad who takes no prisoners but has a heart after all; Easter, the native deaf boy with more sense than most of the medical doctors – in the jungle anyway; and, of course, Marina, the star character, who struggles with her own demons that led her away from obstetrics to a career as a researcher in cholesterol.
The crux of the story has Marina going to the Amazon to find Anders, her colleague and father of three boys, who has mysteriously died in the jungle. After a series of setbacks, she finally makes it to Dr. Swenson’s secret camp, and discovers the magical bark that makes the seventy year old women fertile, along with a few other surprises.
The ending is far-fetched, but you will be thankful for it. And, as always, Patchett offers a wild ride with a good story.