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State of Wonder

Ann Patchett's latest, a "literary, ethical thriller" set in the Amazon, is the must-read novel of the summer.

By Yvonne Zipp / June 14, 2011

State of Wonder By Ann Patchett Harper Collins 353 pp.

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Here's a quick way to tell if the man you're dating is a keeper: When a colleague dies under mysterious circumstances in the Amazon does he A) go himself to bring the man's body back to his grieving widow, since he's the CEO who sent him to his death, or B) does he suggest you go instead?

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And so, pharmaceutical employee Dr. Marina Singh finds herself on a flight to Manaus, Brazil, in Ann Patchett's terrific new novel, State of Wonder, which creates its own classification as a literary, ethical thriller. The middle-aged Singh is not exactly Indiana Jones: She's having screaming nightmares about her dead father, thanks to anti-malarial drugs; her luggage keeps getting lost or repossessed; she doesn't speak Portuguese; and nothing about Minnesota has prepared her for the heat (or the lizards the size of kittens).

Marina's boyfriend/boss, Jim Fox, is less concerned about the unfortunate demise of Dr. Anders Eckman, Marina's coworker, and more worried about all the money his company has sunk into developing a fertility drug that supposed to act like the fountain of youth for women.

Eckman had been sent down to monitor the program's progress under the formidable Dr. Annick Swensen (who may have gone rogue and at least is no longer returning the company's calls). Dr. Swensen was at one time Marina's mentor – although Marina's residency ended with her vowing never to treat a patient again. Marina is under no illusions that Swensen will be happy to see her – or even remember her failed pupil. (This is way worse than showing up at a 10-year college reunion to find that your favorite teacher, the one who changed your life, has no idea who you are.) Mentors and rebirth are two themes that resonate throughout the novel, and Patchett also includes echoes of Dickens, Henry James, and “Orpheus and Eurydice.”

Marina is skeptical about the miracle drug and the hidden Amazon tribe where grandmothers are said to routinely give birth. (“I don't care how primitive these women are, if they understood what they were doing that was causing them to remain fertile unto death they'd stop doing it,” she tells Fox.) She's going, she tells herself, because Eckman's widow, Karen, begged her to. Karen can't believe her husband is really dead based on Swensen's tersely worded note and can't in good conscience leave her three boys.

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