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Ann Patchett: State of Wonder

Vogel is a pharmaceutical company based in Minneapolis. The CEO is Mr. Fox (he is called Mr. Fox throughout the book, even by Marina, though we know his name to be Jim), a sixty-one year old widower. The story is concerned with three of his employees. Dr. Annick Swenson has made a brilliant career as a medical doctor and teacher of medicine. However, she has also taken a degree in ethnobotany. She is currently somewhere in a Brazilian jungle studying a Brazilian tribe, where the women continue to produce healthy children well into their sixties. As none of the neighbouring tribes seem able to do this, it is assumed that it is something that they eat that enables them to do this. Dr. Swenson’s task is to track this something down and bring it back to be marketed by Vogel. Unfortunately, Dr. Swenson has disappeared into the Brazilian jungle, no-one seems to know where, only turning up every now then in Manaus to collect supplies, without giving any indication of her progress or her whereabouts. The Vogel shareholders and CEO are getting anxious. There are two pharmacologists who, for some reason (never made clear), are associated with this project, though they are working on statins. One has met her once, on the initial review board, and the other met her previously, as she was a student of hers some time ago. The first is Anders Eckman, married with three children. However, when offered the opportunity to go and track down Dr. Swenson in Brazil, he jumps at the chance, as he is a keen birdwatcher and hopes to see a variety of interesting birds. Letters are sent back, increasingly despondent. Finally – and this is the start of the novel – Mr. Fox receives a curt letter from Dr. Swenson, informing him that Dr. Eckman has died from a fever and has been given a Christian burial.

The attention now turns to Dr. Marina Singh, the main character of this novel. She had worked with Dr. Eckman and may well be in love with both Dr. Eckman and Mr. Fox. She is forty-two, born and bred in Minneapolis, of an Indian father and white American mother. Her parents divorced when she was young and her father returned to India. She had studied medicine, particularly under Dr. Swenson, but had injured a baby while the mother was in labour, having failed to follow Dr. Swenson’s instructions. She had then switched to pharmacology. She had been briefly married to a fellow resident doctor but it had not lasted. When he receives the letter about the death of Dr. Eckman, Mr. Fox recruits Dr. Singh to inform Mrs. Eckman. As well as being upset, Mrs. Eckman understandably wants her husband’s body brought back and, later, tells Dr. Singh that she does not believe that he is dead and wants Dr. Singh to go and see if he really is dead. Meanwhile. Mr. Fox wants her to go and investigate, to see what happened and find out what Dr. Eckman did not find out. She reluctantly agrees. The rest of the novel is about her journey to Brazil to find out what is going on.

In Brazil, where the rest of the novel takes place, Marina, not unsurprisingly undergoes a whole range of new experiences. First, of course, there is the physical environment. Insects and snakes feature quite a lot as does the heat. Secondly, there is the relationship with the Lakashi, the local tribe, whose culture is naturally very different from hers. Then there is the relationship with the other doctors, mainly but not all from the USA. In particular, there is her relationship with Dr Swenson, a formidable woman, seventy-three years old with a mind of her own and very strong views on life and how people should behave and who is happy to tell them how they should behave if they do not conform to her standards. And, of course, as in any good novel, Marina finds out a lot about herself during the course of the book.

The story concerns the scientific investigation, which turns out, inevitably, to be more complex than was first thought. But it also concerns the relationship with the tribe and also the relationship with Easter. Easter is a young boy who is completely deaf and seems, though this is not sure, to have come from a nearby tribe, the Hummocca, a very violent tribe, with whom the Lakashi have only minimal contact. Dr Swenson has taken to him and looks after him, but so does Marina, two women, of course, who do not have children of their own. It also seems that Easter and Anders Eckman were very close. There are numerous plot twists before we come to a generally happy conclusion, though not without a few problems.

Patchett tells a very good story, with well-drawn characters and a fascinating plot. She raises interesting moral questions – how far should we tamper with nature? the relationship with native tribes; business ethics; and our own personal responsibilities. However, none of these issues is thrust into our face but, rather, is there for us to consider, if we want to. No strong moral conclusions are drawn but, as good writers do, issues are raised but the conclusions are left for us to make our own. In short, this is a novel that is well worth reading, whatever your views on these issues.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Random House