Sunday, October 23, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

For the last couple of weeks I’ve looked forward to going to bed every night just so I could get under the covers with this book. I’m usually quite tired by the time I start reading in bed, so I could often only get through about 10 pages before I started to fall asleep. Yesterday was a Saturday and I had heaps of spare time so I sat down in the middle of the day and finished it – I’m glad I did because there is a point towards the end of the story when you simply cannot put the book down, and that would have meant a really late night for me!

Marina works for a pharmaceutical company, Vogel in Minnesota. Her colleague and research partner Anders Eckman has gone to the Brazilian rainforest in search of the elusive Dr Swenson, who has been contracted by Vogel to conduct research on the Lakashi tribe. The thing is, she’s been there for about 50 years and is reticent about communicating with Vogel. So Anders is sent to see how the project is going. The project is to develop a fertility drug. You see, Lakashi women are able to have children for their whole lives. Vogel is keen to develop a fertility drug for women by exploiting whatever it is that enables Lakashi women to do this. This is a very interesting theme, given the contemporary trend of (usually middle-class) women delaying childbirth. On the surface, such a drug would be a dream—women could put off having kids until they were well and truly ready. We wouldn’t wake up aged 42 and think ‘oops, I forgot to have a child’. There would be no need to freeze eggs and the ‘declining fertility rate’ would be something that governments could wipe off their list of concerns. But of course, menopause also represents liberation from the risk of falling pregnant and the ability to fall pregnant at any age might not be the dream it first appears, especially given the deterioration of human bodies as we age.

Anyway, a few weeks after Anders leaves for Brazil, Vogel receives a letter in the post from Dr Swenson informing them that Anders has died from a tropical fever. Anders’ wife is obviously distraught and demands more details. She refuses to believe that Anders is dead and demands that someone else from Vogel go and investigate. Marina is sent.

Marina’s adventures in the rainforest certainly didn’t make me want to go near the place. Insects, humidity, snakes, spiders and cannibals are just some of the things she encountered. To say nothing of pregnant women in their 70s! The elusive Dr Swenson was Marina’s teacher and Marina and their relationship is an interesting one because Dr Swenson initially doesn’t remembers Marina, and it is just as well, given their history.

Dr Swenson is not happy to have her work interrupted and does not hide this, putting Marina in an uncomfortable situation. The research she is conducting is complicated and sensitive. She has invested her whole life into it and Vogel should just let her be so she can get the work done, so she says. Anders was pleasant but a nuisance, and Marina probably will be too.

There are two objectives to Marina’s journey to the jungle: to find out what happened to Anders so she can tell his wife; and to survey the progress of the project for Vogel. She discovers the truth about the project and eventually the truth about Anders. It is a thrilling ride with twists and heartbreaking turns. I finished the book wondering about Ann Patchett’s imagination. The ideas in the book are quite extraordinary and I wonder where she came up with them. None of the characters, apart from Dr Swenson’s chauffeur when she’s in Manaus, and the deaf child Easter, are particularly likeable, but they seem real.

It was a little bit predictable towards the end, but nevertheless beautifully written. I didn’t buy Marina taking Easter with her on her boat trip to the Hummoca tribe. If I could see what was coming as a reader, surely Marina could have had more foresight.

Apart from this, I heartily recommend this book. Not only is it a great read, it’s thought-provoking. I am very rarely moved to tears by a novel, but there were a couple of places in the book where I almost cried. That’s powerful.

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