Wednesday, December 21, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Selected by as one of 2011's Best Books of the year, State of Wonder is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with female characters. Thankfully, it lacks the savagery while at the same time exploring indigenous tribes of South America as well as the heart and soul of two very complicated women physicians.

As the novel begins Marina Singh, a pharmacologist for the Minnesota based Vogel Pharmaceuticals, receives an aerogram from the Amazon jungle that informs her that her colleague, Anders Eckman has died and been buried in situ. Sharing it with Mr. Fox, head of the pharma company, the two prepare to deliver the news to Eckman's wife Karen. The distraught widow does not believe her husband has died and Marina agrees to travel to South America to discover what exactly happened, find his body, and return with it and his possessions. She goes, also, with the charge from Fox, to check on the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson's research on a revolutionary new drug - the reason for Eckman's trip.

Much of Marina's life is explained and told in flashback technique as she experiences hallucinatory side effects from taking the drug Lariam as a precaution to guard against malaria. The reader learns of her life in India, the daughter of a prominent physician, and her medical school experience at Johns Hopkins where she worked under Dr. Swenson. Her trepidation in embarking on the journey to the jungle and becoming reacquainted with her mentor is painfully revealed.

With all the background as a prelude, the adventure becomes engrossing upon Singh's arrival in South America. Swenson's research involves the development of a drug that allows women to bear children into their 70s. (Who would want to is beyond me !!) She has witnessed this first hand among the Lakishi tribe. There are enough adventures in the Amazon to keep the readers' interest as Marina struggles to get to the bottom of the story. On her journey memorable characters provide insight and guidance. Who will every forget Easter, the deaf boy, who is in tune with his surroundings and the people who have adopted him. One of the most harrowing times involves an anaconda that throws everyone into a panicked situation. 

Meeting Ann Patchett (11/21/11)

Marina adjusts to her new surroundings and as she does she becomes closer to the memory of Anders. Although foreshadowed, the stunning twist at the end of the book leaves the reader taken aback. Adding to this ending was a revelation added by Ann Patchett herself in her Literary Evening's Lecture at Carnegie Music Hall.  Patchett is a gifted speaker - at ease and extemporaneous - and was a real pleasure to meet and hear. State of Wonder is an excellent read that delves into so many topics and situations. The commentary, tho somewhat masked, about large pharma, the relationships between and among the characters, and the self-reflection of her characters give the reader plenty to think about even after the last page is read.

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