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State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
© Harper
Harper, June 2011

Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder, is lush with the details of its vibrant setting in the Amazonian jungle, a place that teems with life: rare birds, poisonous snakes, and a tree whose bark promises a revolutionary change for Western medicine. Bringing together elements of adventure, travel, and mystery, this story sustains itself with a compelling central character and takes an exciting turn at the end.

Patchett is the author of five other novels, including Run, The Patron Saint of Liars, and the acclaimed Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. In State of Wonder, Patchett again weaves a beautiful web of a plot that will keep readers entangled in the details of her characters' lives and enthralled with the jungle's sublime beauty.

In State of Wonder, medical researcher Marina Singh gets sent into one of the most alive places on earth to uncover an unexplained death. The book opens with news of a death announcement that arrives in Minnesota by way of an Aerogram sent from Brazil. Such startling news immediately sets this book's plot into motion and begs the question: what in the world happened to Anders Eckman?
Eckman - the deceased - had been sent deep into the Amazonian jungle by his employer, a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company. But he doesn't return. Instead, a thin piece of paper offering only a few details - that Eckman had contracted a fever and been buried according to Christian tradition - arrives in the hands of his boss back in Minnesota. Marina Singh, Eckman's loyal co-worker and friend, seems like the most logical person to uncover the truth about what exactly happened. Marina's single, obedient, and she's a former student of the doctor spearheading the research in Brazil.

Off to the Amazon Marina goes, not knowing where exactly she'll end up or what details she'll bring home. Besides being commissioned to return with the circumstances of Eckman's death, she's also being sent by her employer to report on the status of the research being conducted there. It concerns the development of a new drug extracted from the bark of a rare tree, but even the company funding the research isn't quite clear of the details. Marina's duty is both personal and professional. And as she negotiates the unfamiliarity of life in the Amazon, she must also decide where her loyalties lie.
Patchett's elegant natural descriptions stand out in this book. In one instance, Marina Singh finds herself in the jungle when there was "a single, nuclear flash of lightening that was followed some milliseconds later by a clap of thunder that could have cracked the world in half, and then, because these things come in threes, there was rain." A similarly standout description follows Marina's first sight of stars in the jungle; she sees the "textbook of constellations, the heroes of mythology posing on fields of ink."

Marina, herself, is an interesting character. The medicine she takes to combat malaria causes her to have flashback dreams of her lost father. Patchett melds Marina's experience in the jungle with the details of this character's inner workings, and the coupling of these things comes off well.

Despite an exciting opening hook, State of Wonder's plot lags a bit midway through. Marina must wait in a Brazilian city before going into the jungle, and some of the action there feels like filler. The pace of the plot picks up again, however, once Marina is settled in the jungle, and a surprise twist occurs about thirty pages from the end of the book.

In State of Wonder, Eckman's widow holds on to the hope that her husband is out there somewhere, still alive. "Hope is a horrible thing," she says. "I don't know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it's not. It's a plague." But for the readers who might get bogged down in this book's slower moments: hang in there. Hope will see you through to an exciting end.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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