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by Ann Patchett

Harper Collins Publishers | 2011 | 353 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

You may wonder why a woman in her 60s, 70s or even older would want to get pregnant. Or you may wonder why a scientist would want to risk her life in the pursuit of discovering the cause of death of a colleague or why a pharmaceutical company would want to continue to employ someone whose research is so secret that even the people who pay her are not privy to any information about what she is doing. Or you may wonder about the long term psychological effect on a Doctor after having blinded an infant during delivery. And you may even wonder why a man who loves his wife and three young children would be willing to risk the perils of jungle life, making the conscious choice to stay there beyond the “call of duty.”  The question is, which of the above, or things not yet mentioned, does Ann Patchett expect you to “wonder” about?

What is a sure bet, is that if you are holding a copy of State of Wonder in your hand, or reading it on an e-book, you cannot put it down.

My 1987 trip down the very waters Patchett describes, and my reckless (in retrospect) jungle walks, machete in hand, were so intertwined with Patchett’s that I could feel the sting of the mosquitoes and I could hear the hiss of the snakes.

      Patchett is a master plotter and has the rare writer’s gift of storytelling with the combined eloquence of prose. She opens up all your senses: “…there were layers and layers of scents inside (the Hammock) and the smell of her own sweat which brought up trace amounts of soap and shampoo, the smell of the hammock itself which was both mildewed and sun baked with a slight hint of rope, and the smell of the boat gasoline and oils, and the smell of the world outside the boat, the river water and the great factory of leaves, pumping oxygen into the atmosphere…”    

Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Manaus, the Brazilian shove-off point of the Amazon River and its myriad of tributaries, ostensibly to learn the details of the mysterious death of her colleague, fellow scientist Anders Eckman, whose wife cannot abandon their three young children to make that trip.

Leaving the Minnesota headquarters of pharmaceutical company VOGEL, and her somewhat boring lover-boss, Mr. Fox, Marina is also intrigued by the thought of reuniting with sharp-tongued Dr. Annick Swenson, a former mentor and teacher who is spearheading a secret research project for VOGEL.

And oh! The people we meet in the Amazon, to say nothing of the mosquitoes and sloths and tarantulas and snakes and capybaras.  “At dusk, the insects came down in a storm, the hard shelled and the soft sided, and the stinging and chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one enfolded its wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find…”  

The jungle darkness aligns with the dark story of the Lakashi women who eat tree bark to preserve their fertility, and of their neighboring tribe of cannibals.

Questions of scientific efficacy as well as ethics thread throughout the tale, as does Marina’s professional past and indeed, her own heritage. The cast of indigenous people sharpens the contrast and the diversity of humanity and the pace of the action is electric, in a setting with a scarcity of electricity.

My only gripe is the surprise ending that is too much like a wrapped Christmas present, but by the time you reach the closing, you’ll be happy enough to be in civilization and feel deserving of such largess. 

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