Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: Ann Patchett's State of Wonder

At first, I resisted Ann Patchett's recent best-seller, State of Wonder.  It begins with death, and I have a cowardly disposition toward such painful subjects.  But, it kept appearing on "must-read" lists, so I gave it a shot, and the novel proved worth it.  It does begin on a somber note: the protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist at a pharmaceutical company, learns of the death of her colleague Anders Eckman and must face, first, relaying the news to Eckman's wife, and then, traveling to the Amazon where Eckman died while trying to locate a rogue scientist.  The first part of the novel is uncomfortably morbid, as Marina reflects on the Eckman's death and the resulting destruction in the life of his wife and sons.

The novel picks up pace, however, as Marina transitions to Brazil, commissioned both by Eckman's wife and her employer to discover what happened to Eckman and locate Dr. Swenson, the scientist Eckman was trying to reach.  Swenson was also Marina's professor during her medical residency years earlier, and Marina harbors a deep reverence and also fear of her former teacher.  Swenson is formidable, growing almost legendary before she ever enters the novel midway through.  Her research centers around extended fertility among an Amazonian tribe--a pharmaceutical gold-mine that could deliver babies to women in their 60s or even 70s.  The company is then, understandably worried that Swenson has apparently gone AWOL.

Marina's adventures are many: breaking through the gates and gatekeepers Swenson has left behind her, surviving fevers, snakes, and angry tribesmen.  The novel, however, is not merely action-packed.  It raises a number of interesting questions, especially when measured against what obviously must have been the inspiration for the story: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  The disciple-like reverence that so many develop for Swenson mirrors the devotion shown to Kurtz; thus, a good part of the novel is spent considering how Marina will, like Marlow, experience the disillusionment that comes from seeing the dark heart of the idol.  The novel, too, raises questions, if obliquely, about colonization and its effects, both on the  native populations and the environment.  Indeed, even the research that seems so miraculous, comes under intense and painful scrutiny.

The novel continues to unfold unexpected twists, and even if you have read Heart of Darkness, the resolution of the novel may come as a surprise.

Ultimately, an exciting story, but one that doesn't leave your mind behind.

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