Ann Patchett's lyrical orchestration of mood, theme and a universe of characters in her novel Bel Canto won her many awards, including the Orange Prize in 2002. She's written four other novels, but Bel Canto's disparate motifs - from opera to terrorism - melded in her refined prose, to produce her best-known bestseller, and for good reason. Her non-fiction work, Truth and Beauty, about her late close friend and fellow writer Lucy Grealy, showed a similar elegance.
Her new novel, State of Wonder, attempts to be an accessible crowd-pleaser. There are fewer themes and characters, which allows for more nuance and layers to each person's back story. Where Bel Canto occupied a level above mainstream fiction, here Patchett uses her immense storytelling talents in a commercial, cinematic manner. It's not a beach read exactly, but it will fight among books trying to make their way into people's luggage as they leave for their summer holidays.
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State of Wonder focuses on a clash of spirits between two female doctors conducting research in the Brazilian rainforest on a miracle fertility drug. If effective, the drug would provide women with the not-entirely enticing power to have children well into their 60s or 70s, enabling them, as Patchett writes, to "hand off their infants to their granddaughters".
This and other startling images make the book a highbrow fantasy adventure dotted with social commentary on scientific advances meant to radically alter women's reproductive health. The fantasy elements include magic mushrooms, magic trees, hallucinogen-induced screaming nightmares, and a giant snake attack. Yet after lots of great storytelling, with a few meandering subplots and a (nearly) unforgivable red herring, Patchett rushes the book's conclusion and makes a strange moral judgement upon the main character.
The protagonist is Marina Singh, a lab researcher for Vogel, a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota. Marina is 42 and unmarried, facts key to her character and the book's themes. Her journey to Brazil begins when Mr Fox, Vogel's CEO (and Marina's secret boyfriend), delivers news that Anders Eckman, her close colleague and friend, has died suddenly in South America.
Eckman went to Brazil with a simple task: to locate a brilliant but rebellious doctor, Annick Swenson, who has not updated Vogel on her progress with the fertility drug for more than two years. Patchett makes much of the mystery behind Swenson's whereabouts, "not even Mr Fox knew where she was exactly, other than somewhere on a tributary off the Rio Negro". Though it should be noted he also continued to fund her research, one of many facts that are hard to swallow.
Marina then breaks the news of Eckman's death to his widow, who before long entreats her to go to Brazil. "I'm still hoping that this Dr Swenson, for some reason I couldn't possibly put together, has lied about everything, that she's keeping him, or she's lost him somewhere." Patchett wisely gives the widow two young sons, thus preventing her from being able to go to Brazil herself. And Marina agrees to jet off to Brazil, find the mysterious Swenson, bring back details about Eckman's death, and get the CEO his progress report.
There's little tension in all this - we know Marina will go - but Patchett's entertaining work here takes readers up the necessary steps before Marina's transformative time in the jungle. The intentionally slow pace early on lets Patchett establish the complex circuitry of Marina's personal history, which accrues richness during the book's second act and allows for a whirlwind of plot twists later on, in the much more fun setting of the jungle.
Before fleshing out the sketchy portrait of Dr Swenson, Patchett adds further depth to Marina's story. Her deceased father was a graduate student who later returned to India and left Marina and her mother behind in Minnesota. Marina visited him during her childhood and, "seeing her father gave her the ability to see herself, the comfort of physical recognition after a life spent among her mother's people". And in a masterfully crafted scene, Marina battles terrible nightmares during her flight to Brazil, a side effect from Lariam, an anti-malarial medication she also took when she used to visit her father.
Having established Marina's courage, intelligence and romantic ties to the rich Mr Fox back home, Patchett moves Marina towards Brazil to face her greatest regret in life - that she never became a surgeon. We learn that Marina studied under the mercilessly tough Dr Swenson while at medical school at Johns Hopkins. Marina stopped her studies after a terrible accident in which she permanently maimed a newborn. At the time, Dr Swenson ignored Marina's anguish over the incident, stopping only to testify against her during the hospital investigation.
With these obstacles laid out for Marina to conquer, we see her expedition to Brazil as a journey inward, to defeat old fear and painful regret. Indeed, it's very enjoyable to root for Marina as she bravely launches herself towards a confrontation with her nemesis. Will she win? If so, how?
In Brazil, Marina and Swenson cross paths. Then it's off to the jungle to study the Lakashi tribe. Marina sees that Swenson has taken a young boy named Easter under her care, from a neighbouring, fiercer tribe called the Hummocca. Then, among the Lakashi, Marina sees first hand the odd habit that has given the Lakashi women the ability to have children for as long as they live: they chew the bark of a special tree. And sometimes eat blue mushrooms.
Swenson is then made more human than she had been portrayed in Marina's memory. She is tough, witty and believes in taking naps. She's also 70, and is very sorry about what happened to Anders Eckman, though she does not give Marina many more details to take back to Minnesota to Eckman's widow.
Patchett is astonishingly good at transmitting key information, and human feel, through her cast of minor characters. Via a group of other doctors and protectors surrounding Swenson, Marina learns Swenson has a secret, shameful regret of her own: her career was based on a hidden affair with an illustrious botanist.
Marina and Swenson's unsteady relationship grows calmer as Swenson accepts Marina's presence at her secret jungle camp. Marina befriends the boy Easter, who has nightmares, too - of Eckman's death, or so Swenson would have Marina believe. And Patchett's evocative descriptions of the jungle adds some tension, but not enough. The narration of Marina's thoughts and feelings assure us that she'll never come to any real harm. Even as she uses a machete to hack through the body of an attacking anaconda, we're confident she'll soon be back at work researching her next incredible discovery.
These details are not spoilers, as there are many major plot twists, some predictable, some implausible, in the novel's final pages. It would be saying too much to reveal how Marina overcomes her fears of performing surgery, and what news (and human companion) with which she returns to Minnesota. But Patchett builds mysteries, withholds details, disguises implausibilities, hints at shared information among characters, then surprises based on the expectations she's established.
Marina's final choices form a puzzling commentary on what she did with her earlier life, based on fear, and the future path she chooses after conquering deep regrets that verged on despair. Her journey, while entertaining, is too surreal to matter much in the real world. Patchett offers a vague resolution, a twist for a book focused on women of immense resolve.
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book Award.