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Review of State of Wonder

June 11, 2011

State of Wonder Left Me In a State of Awe

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett is a literary page-turning adventure slash mystery that is my 2011 must-read summer recommendation.  Its story centers on Marina Singh who is a researcher for a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota.  Marina is sent to find out what happened to her colleague who has died under mysterious conditions while visiting Dr. Annik Swenson, a ruthless and powerful scientist, in the jungles of the Amazon.  Swenson is paid by Marina’s company to find new and profitable drugs from jungle flora and runs a lab somewhere in the Amazon but no one seems to know where exactly. Dr. Swenson was the last person to see Marina’s colleague alive and so Marina must track her down.
Marina is not keen on going to the Amazon and when she reaches Swenson’s lab, she is already half mad due to the side effects of the anti-malarial drug she is taking.  It gives her frightening nightmares which makes her loathe to fall asleep. What makes this situation even more interesting is that Marina and Swenson have a complicated and painful past that Marina would rather not dredge up.  But that’s nothing compared to the sweltering and claustrophobic jungle habitat where she finds herself living amongst the primitive Lakashi tribe.  The insects are large and everywhere.  Snakes lurk under trees and in the water and are powerful enough to squeeze the life out of a person in just minutes.  In the meantime, everything she owns mysteriously disappears leaving her without so much as a change of clothes or a toothbrush.  The mobile phone her employer thoughtfully provided her with is long gone, as well.  She’s on her own.
Once Dr. Swenson tells Marina the story of her colleague’s demise one might think she would be in a hurry to return home, but there is more going on than meets the eye in Dr. Swenson’s lab.  Marina becomes involved in the lab work and slowly she falls under the jungle’s spell.  She finds her life and dreams changing and her confidence returning.  Eventually, the secrets of the jungle are revealed to her but by then it appears it might be too late for Marina to return to life as she knew it in Minnesota.  The story’s conclusion is fast-paced, riveting and exciting.
The fully-developed and eccentric characters are constantly at cross purposes and all have secrets to hide or unnamed fears, misgivings and regrets.  The jungle provides a fantastic backdrop where there is peril at every turn.  Underlying issues of medical ethics and fertility add an interesting texture to the narrative and the character of Dr. Swenson provides us with dark, humorous dialogue.
No one tells a story like Ann Patchett.  Bel Canto, her novel released in 2001 won both the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and this one seems destined to follow in its footsteps.  Patchettt has a singular voice in the literary world and she has risen to the top of heap once again with State of Wonder.

Harper, 2011

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