About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

#12: State of Wonder

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (New York: Harper, 2011)

"Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug. Nothing about the assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding Dr. Swenson as well as answers to troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past.

"Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of the Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina.

"In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, and a neighboring tribe of cannibals, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a rare tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side."

Opening Line:
"The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope."

My Take:
A fascinating book. Yes, I'm a sucker for (pardon the pun) novel settings, especially when they're as vividly described as Patchett's Brazilian jungle, but honestly, I think I was more intrigued by how Marina's character develops over the course of the story. While she's a successful physician, she also has her issues: half-Indian, she's always felt somewhat out of place in the Eckman family's blond-haired, blue-eyed Minnesota, and she reacts to the anti-malarial Lariam with vivid, violent nightmares of being a young girl abandoned by her father in a crowded Calcutta market. She also seems more than a little lonely, despite the secretive half-relationship with her boss (who she still thinks of as Mr. Fox, rather than Jim). And then there's the back story: despite the jacket summary above, Swenson was less a mentor to Marina than a senior professor she and the rest of her med school classmates simultaneously admired and feared, and it was Swenson who was the supervising physician when Marina made the error that led her to abandon her ob/ gyn specialty for pharmacology.

Against this backdrop, Marina's boss/ lover Mr. Fox sends her Brazil shortly after they learn of Eckman's death. If Eckman hadn't been able to rein in Dr. Swenson, Fox argues, Marina's history with the older woman (which he doesn't really know anything about) and superior people skills should do the job.

And so she's off. After more than a brief sojourn in Manaus, the nearest city of any size, Marina finally convinces the Bovenders (the neo-hippie couple who've been renting Dr. Swenson's home while she's blissfully incommunicado in the jungle) to tell her where the doctor is (or at least put her in touch with a boatman who can take her there). She eventually reaches the remote settlement of the Lakashi people, who greet her arrival with jubilant torch-waving, and Dr. Swenson, who's a bit less thrilled to see her. As she becomes drawn into Swenson's research (ostensibly on the mysterious Lakashi propensity for extended fertility -- women continue having babies into their sixties and seventies -- but is it really?) and the jungle itself, she must confront complex questions, not only about nature and medicine and intervention, but about who she is and what role she has to play.

Bottom line: Didn't quite live up to the hype it's received, but still quite compelling.

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