State of Wonder

In State of Wonder, Ann Patchett has once again astonished readers with her evocative prose. Set in the Brazilian Amazon, Patchett raises moral questions pertaining to scientific exploration and the choices we make as individuals and as a society. Moreover, she explores the nature of friendship and love, and the loyalties and betrayals inherent in both.

When the book opens, we are introduced to Marina Singh, a researcher for a pharmaceutical company. She and Anders Eckman are lab partners researching cholesterol drugs. Mr. Fox, an administrator at the company, has sent Anders into the Brazilian jungle on an investigative mission. He is to check on the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson in developing a fertility drug. She has been there, unsupervised, for over a decade. The reader learns on the first line of the book that Anders has died in that jungle. The question is why?

Marina is the vehicle through which we see both the jungle and Dr Swenson, much as Marlow is the means through which the Congo and Kurtz are viewed in the Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad). Her sojourn into the Amazon takes the form of a quest. With its poisonous snakes, thickets of insects and neighboring cannibals, Marina has entered a green hell.

Marina studied to be a doctor and did her residency in gynecology under Dr. Swenson. But a horrible mistake in the operating theater made her abandon her career. She struggles with this loss as well as the childhood loss of her father. Since his death, she has been troubled by recurring nightmares. Patchett allows the reader to enter her dreams seamlessly; we get a sense of the scared little girl who is now a fearful woman.

The most fascinating character in the novel is Dr. Swenson. A latter-day Kurtz (Heart of Darkness) , she has focused on studying a tribe whose women continue bearing children well into old age. Unbeknownst to Mr. Fox and the company, she is also doing research on an anti-malarial drug. She hopes to save millions of people for whom malaria is a cause of death, but for whom American companies care little.

Dr. Swenson has been in the jungle so long that she no longer feels comfortable elsewhere. She has even come to question modern medicine and the role it should serve for a native population. "The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you," Dr. Swenson explains to Marina, "or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects the indigenous people....The point , then, is to observe the life they themselves have put in place and learn from it." (pp. 162-163)

Dr. Swenson applies this principal to her affections for an orphaned, deaf boy for whom she is mother and father. Although Eckman and Marina teach Easter western manners, Dr. Swenson draws the line at taking him back to the states "as a souvenir." She understands that to civilize him is to place a value judgment on the way of life of another culture.

State of Wonder is a beautiful, thought-provoking adventure story. Like Conrad's classic, it looks at issues of good and evil, exploring the boundaries of loyalty and the limits of love.

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