State of Wonder
Ann Patchett's latest, a "literary, ethical thriller" set in the Amazon, is the must-read novel of the summer.
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Anytime you have a hero heading up a river into a jungle in search of a reclusive figure, “Heart of Darkness” is immediately going to spring to mind. (Also, when the brilliant recluse is hiding out in South America, “The Mosquito Coast.”)Skip to next paragraph
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But when she finally finds her, the 73-year-old Swensen doesn't exactly look like a Kurtz. “The woman who had fixed the course of Marina's life looked for all the world like somebody's Swedish grandmother on a chartered tour of the Amazon.”
Not only doesn't Swensen suffer fools, she has no time for people of above-average intelligence either. She is, however, given to dry pronouncements, such as: “It is said the sesta is one of the only gifts the Europeans brought to South America, but I imagine the Brazilians could have figured out how to sleep in the afternoon without having to endure centuries of murder and enslavement,” and “I prefer to sit on a box. A box doesn't protect one from the roaches, but I like to think it sends a message: We are on another level.”
The iconoclastic Swensen operates strictly by her own moral code and, as Marina doggedly ignores Swensen's insults and follows her to her secret lab in the rain forest, that code becomes more and more complicated. Is Swensen protecting the tribe from the pharmaceutical company, or exploiting both for her own ends?
“State of Wonder” is easily Patchett's best novel since Latin American terrorists took over the Japanese embassy in “Bel Canto.” It may even be better, but I'm not entirely rational on the subject of “Bel Canto.” The South American climate, however, clearly agrees with Patchett's prose.
For “Bel Canto” fans, it won't hurt that the former rubber capital of Manaus (which at one time was so fantastically rich that rubber barons would send their laundry to Portugal to be cleaned) boasts a legendary opera house, at which Patchett sets a pivotal scene. “Marina thought of it as the line of civilization that held the jungle back. Surely without the opera house the vines would have crept up over the city and swallowed it whole.”
But “State of Wonder” isn't all highbrow culture and experimental science. Patchett has included everything from cannibals to giant snakes, and in the process, created the literary must-read of the summer.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.