Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder”

A couple of years back, I read and loved David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, a true story about a late 19th- and early 20th-century British explorer, Percy Fawcett, who traveled many times to the Amazon to search for a city, “Z,” which was suspected to have existed but to have been swallowed up by the jungle in recent centuries. What a great book! (I wrote about a little bit on my blog back in August 2009.) Not only was the book well researched and then (I suppose) painstakingly written, the subject matter was also irresistible to me. I don’t even like to camp outside in my own backyard, but I am fascinated by people like Fawcett who think there is more to be gained in exploring the Amazon and “discovering” a rich old city in the jungle, than there is to be lost in being eaten by cannibals. (By the way, I just read that Brad Pitt is making a movie about The Lost City of Z. Now please Bradley, don’t ruin it.)

Maybe that’s part of why I also enjoyed my most recent read, State of Wonder, by the wonderful Ann Patchett. Unlike Z, Patchett’s book is fiction, but it, too, takes place in the Amazon. It first appealed to me because it was written by Patchett, the author of Bel Canto and Run, two solidly written books with very original plots. Then I started reading State of Wonder and learned the protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, is a 42-year-old woman from Minnesota (so am I), and that the plot takes our Marina to the Amazon in search of a rogue (?) scientist, Dr. Swenson, a woman who has managed a research project for a big pharmaceutical company back in Minnesota, while living in the Amazon for many years . . . and who has stopped communicating about her progress in developing a drug to treat infertility. On top of that, Marina’s office mate, also a scientist at the pharmaceutical company, Dr. Anders Eckman, has already gone to the Amazon to get some information, only to wind up dead from some unspecified fever. So, Marina’s been asked to get more facts about Eckman’s death and (more importantly) how the drug trials are coming along, and she agrees to go to this terrifying jungle to visit with a researcher who has refused to communicate with her employer, the pharmaceutical company, literally for years.

Yeah. I know what you’re thinking. When I read the book’s rundown at the library, I laughed a bit skeptically at the premise of the book, because it sounded so Heart of Darkness-y. And despite my earnest efforts to enjoy Conrad’s famous novel, I’ve only come to appreciate it, never to love it or even like it. But I checked out State of Wonder, started it that night, and gobbled it up pretty quickly. Its plot has some fun and surprising twists, and there’s enough Z-ness about it (such as big snakes, poisonous frogs, malaria, native tribes, and even references to cannibalism) to make up for what eventually becomes a bit of an outrageous tale that still somehow reads believably to those of us who rarely suspect their disbelief.

If I say much more about the plot, I would spoil the book for someone who might read it. But it’s another solid one from Ann Patchett. She doesn’t need references to Joseph Conrad at all, nor (I suppose) would she want any. And I wish I could find more authors whose books are so reliable. She’s made my short list of those who are always sure to delight:  Anthony Trollope, Edith Wharton, Ian McEwan, Wendell Berry, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Philip Roth, and Jane Austen. Thanks, Ann.

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