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?
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.
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.”)
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.