Friday, September 2, 2011

State of Wonder: A female Heart of Darkness

State of WonderState of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ann Patchett's latest novel begins in Minnesota and travels to the jungles of Brazil, where a naive and emotionally stifled researcher, Marina Singh, hopes to discover what happened to her research partner, Anders Eckman. The pharmaceutical company Marina and Anders work for, Vogel, is funding the research of a new fertility drug in the Amazonian jungle led by her medical school mentor, the brilliant and chilly Dr. Annick Swenson.

Marina and Vogel CEO (and Marina's lover) "Mr. Fox" receive a sketchy aerogram from Swenson, informing them almost as an afterthought that Anders has died in the jungle. Mr. Fox asks Marina to go to Brazil to find out what is going on with the drug development (since Dr. Swenson is nearly completely incommunicado) and Karen, Anders' wife, wants her to find out how Anders died--if indeed he really is dead.

When Marina arrives in Manaus, Brazil, she must get past the Bovenders--the couple who live in Dr. Swenson's apartment while she's in the jungle. No one knows how to get to the research station, deep in the heart of the jungle, where Dr. Swenson is studying the Lakashi tribe--whose women bear children into their 70s.

With the exception of Easter, Winston, Rodrigo, and a few tribal members, this book focuses on the antics of the foreigners. I'm not sure whether leaving out the Brazilians' perspectives and personalities was intended. It would have been nice to have understood the Lakashi more, but perhaps this is another point of the book: even though Dr. Swenson had been living among them for years, she still viewed them with a sense of privilege and distance, just as the reader is forced to view them.

Marina constantly makes questionable decisions (such as packing her very expensive, irreplaceable phone in her checked luggage, only to lose it) and it's difficult to understand her alliances. Why on earth is she attracted to the boring Mr. Fox? And does she have any friends or anyone else who will miss her while she is gone? It would appear not. Why was she concerned about taking the others down the river but not be concerned about her beloved Easter (the native child)? I found her difficult to relate to and understand, although sympathetic at the same time. She's haunted by a traumatic experience in her medical training and feelings of abandonment, made only worse by the anti-malarial drug Lariam. (It made me feel fortunate that I took Lariam in my 20s a few times with no ill effects!)

Perhaps that's Patchett's best talent as a writer: her main characters are multidimensional and full of layered depths, although the lesser character development can suffer (for example, Mr. Fox). Even though Annick Swenson can be heartless and emotionally cold and possessing highly questionable ethics, she was a fascinating character. Ultimately she attempts to sacrifice her own health for what she believes is greater good in the world. This is a book pondering ethics and colonialism, just like the Heart of Darkness.

The book passed one of my biggest tests: I thought about it while lying in bed at night and I got up early to finish it. It stuck with me. Well done, Ms. Patchett.

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