published Sunday, July 24th, 2011

'State of Wonder' is rich in texture, characters, story

"State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett. Harper Collins. 368 pages. $27.

By Adera Causey

The Amazon River weaves an intricate path into unrecorded cultures. Ann Patchett takes us on a mystical, magical journey to one of these cultures and gives us a glimpse into a "State of Wonder."

The Nashville-based writer has won accolades for the breadth of her topics and ingenuity presenting a multiplicity of rich characters and viewpoints. In this latest novel, her skills are as dazzling as ever as she turns her sights to a pharmaceutical race to fortune that serves as mere window dressing to a more far-reaching plot.

Marina Singh, a failed physician turned pharmacologist, lives a controlled life doing cellular research for the Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, Vogel, with only an emotionally distanced affair with her boss, Mr. Fox, and a gripping stream of nightmares from her past to distract her from her structured life.

Anders Eckman, her lab partner, has been dispatched to the Amazon to gather information about Annick Swenson, the brilliant but difficult researcher who has ignored calls for progress reports on her fieldwork. Marina's routine, however, is disrupted when a curt and impassive missive from Dr. Swenson announces Eckman's sudden death from an unnamed fever. Eckman's wife's refusal to believe her husband dead and Mr. Fox's increased determination to discover what is truly happening in Dr. Swenson's camp cause a reticent Marina to be dispatched into the heart of the Amazon.

This is where the story begins. Marina initially has only a passing interest in Swenson's research into the fertility of a particular jungle tribe where women give birth well into their 70s. But she dutifully follows orders and welcomes the potential for a distraction from her own lifelong nightmares.

As Marina has a struggle of wills with the intractable Dr. Swenson, her one-time professor, she also grows closer to the people living in this community, especially the gifted deaf-mute boy, Easter, who served as assistant and surrogate child to Dr. Swenson. In doing so, she begins to understand and respect their ways, and to become fascinated by the women's penchant for chewing on the yellow bark of an indigenous single root tree, a palliative that goes beyond addiction to seemingly supply lifelong fertility and perhaps immunity from malaria. As a scientist she is fascinated by the medicinal effects. As a humanist, she is frustrated by Vogel and other pharmaceutical giants' interest in the potentially lucrative medicines that could be tapped from this area to be sold to wealthy child-craving Westerners instead of the life-saving potential of a malarial vaccine that would primarily serve impoverished third-world residents. As a woman toward the end of her child-bearing years, she is unexpectedly drawn to the notion of lifelong fertility, tormented by previously unrecognized maternal desires.

The novel does not dwell on these issues overtly but rather spins us through darkened rivers of plots as richly textured storylines, perfectly tuned dialogue and elaborately rendered characters present, at times, biting commentary on the motivations of pharmaceutical research. These stories ultimately do reveal more about Eckman's fate, Easter's origins, Marina's past and Swenson's goals. But were we on this journey merely to reach this destination, we would miss out on the tremendous sights and sounds that amaze us along the way, and it is these senses that Patchett so expressively exploits to entrance us through a "State of Wonder."

Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.

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