Another wondrous story from Patchett
ěState of Wonder,î by Ann Patchett. Harper Collins Publishers. 353 pages. $26.99 hardcover.
By Elizabeth G. Cook
A telling line comes about a third of the way through ěState of Wonder,î Ann Patchettís latest novel.
The heroine, Dr. Marina Singh, is resisting her bossí suggestion that she take an expedition down the Amazon in search of information for his pharmaceutical company.
Mr. Fox, as she calls him, is also her secret lover.
ěYouíll have to find someone else,î she tells her boss.
But itís Fox the lover who replies ó ěMarina, Marina, Marina,î he says ó with tenderness and love in his voice.
Then comes the line that so perfectly describes Marinaís tendencies: ěShe could smell her own capitulation coming on from a mile away. It was her nature, her duty.î
Too bad for Marina that she cannot smell manipulation coming as well ó but then, there would be no ěState of Wonderî if she did.
In this her sixth novel, Patchett returns to South America, setting of the excellent ěBelle Canto.î Instead of opera singers and hostage-takers, this time she populates her story with U.S. drug researchers and the mysterious Lakashi people, whose women continue to bear children throughout their adult lives.
This story becomes one part adventure, three parts psychological mystery as Marina dives deeper and deeper into the unknown.
For several years, Dr. Annick Swenson has been ensconced in the forests of Brazil, sent to study the Lakashi and develop a fertility drug for Vogel (rhymes with mogul) drug company.
Swenson has become less communicative and more mysterious as her work progresses. The story opens with Mr. Fox sharing with Marina one of Swensonís rare letters. The researcher Vogel sent to Brazil to check on Swensonís progress has fallen ill and died, the doctor says, and has been buried according to Christian custom.
Vogel and Mr. Fox want to send in someone else ó ostensibly to find out what happened to Eckman, but actually to bring back the research report that he was supposed to get.
Against her better judgment, Marina accepts the assignment and ventures down the murky Amazon to learn how Eckman died. She discovers much more, though, and is drawn into the rough but idyllic life of the imperious Swenson and her band of rouge researchers.
The story line is like the Amazon itself, with strong currents drawing the reader deep into the story. A pattern emerges; Marina always winds up doing exactly what she vows not to do, always at the insistence of others.
Marina was not going to the Amazon, not going to like the crude accommodations, not going to stay, not going to deliver babies, not going to explore her feelings for Eckman and so on.
As she nibbles the tree bark that fuels the Lakashi womenís eternal estrogen, it appears Marina may lose herself altogether ó a hostage to othersí wishes.
Marina eventually does exert her own will in a surprising act that brings the story to its climax ó a brave deed with wrenching consequences.
ěState of Wonderî is a compelling story of love and loss, one well worth the reading.
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