My horoscope says it’s time to buckle down. What a cruel thing to tell someone in summer. Maybe by buckle down it means add more chocolate chunks to the cowboy cookies and quit reading horoscopes. And probably finish more books – currently juggling 5 novels. Done done and done.
First let’s talk about a book.
Ann Patchett fell under my easy-to-resist category for years. I like to discover goodness on my own or at least pretend to. My embargo on her books ended with Bel Canto. On paper, a story about a hostage situation held no appeal, but the opera tie in was irresistible. Likewise, a story about a pharmacologist going to the Amazon to gather information on some secret mystery drug sounded boring. It’s not. State of Wonder doesn’t have the magic of Bel Canto, but it sustained my interest and I can see why others loved it.
There’s a lot going on in this hefty story. Heavy on ideas/commentary on pharmaceutical field research and funding, fertility and coping with the past, we get substantial writing piled on a silly plot. The reader has to go along with the premise that a pharmaceutical company would pour huge sums of money into a research lab in the Amazon to develop a fertility drug (so far so good) without receiving a peep of update on the drug’s development for years (suuuuure).
The inciting event is a sparse telegram sent by Dr. Swenson informing the company’s CEO of the death of pharmacologist Anders Eckman, who was sent to investigate the drug’s progress. Dr. Marina Singh, Eckman’s colleague and friend, is then sent to Brazil to complete Eckman’s task. At ease with open prairies, cool nights and anticipating spring’s first blossoms, it takes some convincing for this native Minnesotan to accept the assignment. A few nightmarish doses of Lariam later, she’s off to find Dr. Swenson, the scientist in charge who also happens to be her former formidable teacher.
By the way, the drug company pouring buckets of money into this drug has no clue where in the jungle the lab is located. I spent a lot of time waiting for the story to start. That’s never a good sign even when the writing is superb, which it is. Striking scenes along the way include an agonizingly hot trip to a muddy beach and a night at the opera in stupidly painful heels. It’s not what happens in these scenes, but the author’s ability to immerse you in a worldly atmosphere so removed from the familiar. This is why I’ll read every book she ever has and will write. Patchett leaves you with the impression of having been through something – held hostage by terrorists? Check. Stuck deep in the jungle surrounded by poisonous spiders, bugs, anacondas and cannibalistic tribes. Yup.
Judging by the two Patchett books I’ve read, she puts intelligent characters in extreme situations. Getting to see how they manage is part of the appeal. Once Marina finally discovers the truth behind Dr. Swenson’s work, her secondary mission to bring her dead friend’s body back to his family or at least find out what happened to him becomes more of a vague notion. See, there’s this magical bark women of the Lakashi tribe, the people DR. Swenson lives among and studies, gnaw on. This bark apparently enables these women to continue making babies all their lives. Joy of joys, right? What 50, 60, 70 year old gal wouldn’t love to give birth and change diapers in the nursery home from hell? Never mind how the horrors of babies born to geriatrics in the U.S. would unfold. As a childless professional in her 40s, Marina’s mesmerized by the possibilities.
So the story requires suspension of belief. Every character beyond Marina reads like a flat paper doll and I cringed at how she portrayed the Lakashi and other people of the Amazon. I still appreciated the writing and ambition. It makes you think about what we can and cannot live with. I read in an interview that Patchettt spent some time in the Amazon while researching this book and that comes through. You can feel the jungle closing in on you – what it takes to not die there.
State of Wonder is not great considering what Patchett is capable of, but it’s good. Read it in winter though. Snuggling into a sweaty hammock on these 90+ degree days and reading about an endless trip to the relentlessly muggy jungle is not recommended. I deserve a frosty treat.