Ann Patchett, who held readers captive with Bel Canto, her 2001 novel about a famous opera singer and a group of international dignitaries taken hostage by Latin American terrorists, is back in form with her mesmerizing sixth novel, State of Wonder. Set in the Amazon rain forest, Patchett's new book is a dramatic, transportive adventure story that takes on issues of medical ethics, cultural respect, friendship, love and loyalty.
Patchett's appealing heroine is Marina Singh, a 42-year-old pharmacological researcher working in statin development for a Minnesota company called Vogel. Originally trained in obstetrics and gynecology, she quit medicine after buckling from the pressure of a difficult delivery late into her residency at Johns Hopkins. Twelve years later, her life takes another unexpected turn after she hears that her office-mate and friend, Dr. Anders Eckman, father of three small boys, has died in the Brazilian jungle. Anders, who was sent to check progress on research on an indigenous tree bark said to extend fertility indefinitely, called the substance "the equivalent of Lost Horizon for American ovaries."
The chilly, widowed 60-year-old CEO of Vogel, who also happens to be Marina's secret lover, sends her down to Brazil to find out what happened to Anders, and to investigate how far along the fertility research has come. The woman in charge, who has been dodging inquiries, is none other than Marina's difficult, imperious former medical school professor, Dr. Annika Swenson. When Marina finally manages to locate Dr. Swenson in Manaus, she notes that "she could not overcome the feeling that two very distant points in her life were now colliding in a way that should be relegated only to bad dreams."
Indeed, bad dreams plague the characters in State of Wonder — stimulated by anti-malarial drugs, jungle fevers and childhood traumas. In clear, crisp prose, Patchett captures the rain forest's oppressive heat and humidity, lurking snakes and "veil of insects" with an itchy immediacy. She imbues the Lakashi natives with an exoticism heightened by the somewhat disturbing fact that even scientists who spend years among them, like Dr. Swenson, fail to learn their language.
Patchett sets up a classic face-off between formerly timid Marina and her fearsome, uncompromising teacher. The two women debate their medical responsibilities toward the natives and the ethics of secretly diverting corporate funding to a worthier but less lucrative cause, discovered to be a serendipitous side-effect of the fertility-enhancing bark. They argue over Marina's imperative to stay and doctor her teacher — in need of medical care after having used herself as a test subject — and they disagree about who has rights to the beguiling deaf boy whom Dr. Swenson took in from a fierce neighboring tribe eight years earlier. Through all the moral battles, Marina heroically, faithfully tries to learn what really happened to her friend Anders.
You can't write about the jungle without evoking Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Patchett certainly goes there. She also tucks in multiple allusions to lost paradises and resurrections — with characters named Milton and Easter, and a parallel drawn between Marina's hellish pursuit of Anders with Orfeo's quest to bring Euridice back from the dead in Gluck's opera Orfeo and Euridice. In thrusting her heroine into this richly atmospheric heart of darkness, Patchett has written a wondrous profile in courage.