I haven't written on my blog for a while, mostly because the books I've been reading have been mysteries--good ones (Ruth Rendell, Henning Mankell, et. al.)--and I don't see a whole lot of point in writing about them. But I did just finish a novel that knocked my socks off. "State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett is, quite simply, an amazing book. Spoiler alert: don't read further if you haven't read the book and plan to.
Imagine "Heart of Darkness," "Mosquito Coast," Greek and Roman myth (Orpheus and Euridice, Laocoon); throw in a love quadrangle of sorts, a beautiful bohemian couple, a wise child with no parents, and a journey to hell and back, and you have some idea what this book is about. Marina, a forty-something researcher for a pharmaceutical company, is hiding out in the lab. after doing a botched Caesarian while she was in medical school, studying with the formidable Dr. Annick Swenson. She has never told anyone about this mishap that cost an infant an eye, and her guilt accompanies her everywhere.
Dr. Swenson has spent decades in the Amazonian jungle, befriending an indigenous tribe and studying their incredible fertility. Lakashi women never lose the ability to bear children. Women in their seventies get pregnant, including, we eventually discover, Dr. Swenson herself. Issues of medical ethics, profit and loss, and dedication to a cause are all gone into, not dogmatically but as a natural working out of the plot, which really kicks into high gear when Mr. Fox, Marina's lover and the CEO of Vogel Pharmaceuticals, dispatches Marina's research partner, Anders Ekstrom, to Brazil to investigate the investigations of Dr. Swenson. The good doctor is incommunicado, as she is deep in the jungle, no one knows quite where, and she refuses to have so much as a cell phone. Anders will have to find her first, then persuade her to come home or at least hand over her results.
Anders is a lovely man, a husband and father to three young boys. An avid bird watcher, he eagerly takes on the Vogel mission. He can hardly wait to see species he has so far only read about. The novel begins with Anders' death. Dr. Swenson has sent a brief explanatory letter to Mr. Fox. Anders has died of a fever, and they (Dr. Swenson and the other doctors who work alongside her) have buried him in the jungle. Now it is Marina's turn to head south from Minnesota, where the world is clean and cool and predictably safe, to an Amazon tributary that she hopes will lead her to Dr. Swenson's camp and a fuller explanation of Anders' death.
I'll say no more about the plot, except that it is beyond suspenseful. From the start, a sense of dread hangs over everything, as indeed it should. So many things in Brazil can kill you: a bug bite, a snake bite, malaria, unexplained fevers. Survival is definitely of the fittest. One of the things I like about the book, and there are many, is that the heroine, the rescuer, the brave soul who goes where no one else has gone before and lived to tell about it, is Marina, a woman. "State of Wonder" could count as an adventure story, but it is more than that. It is an exploration of how deep a human being can go and in so doing be redeemed. I felt almost as if I were holding my breath as I read every page, even up to the last word on the final page. Ann Patchett takes her reader on a journey that is as life-changing as the one described in the book. I await the movie.