Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is her sixth novel and eighth book. No stranger to the literary awards scene, the American writer’s novel Bel Canto won both the Orange Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award in 2001, with State of Wonder also appearing on the shortlist for the Orange Prize 2012. It is a novel that crosses borders, multi-
Marina Singh works in the cocooned world of scientific research for the fictional Vogel, a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota. She has for years shared an office with Anders Eckman, a fellow researcher who had been sent by Vogel to the Amazon, deep in the Brazilian rainforest. His brief is to check up on a field team sent there years earlier researching the mysterious Lakshi tribe and headed by Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson’s reputation is something of a rogue but powerful researcher, who although funded by Vogel, has stopped communicating back her findings and has kept the details of her research secret for the last few years. She is formulating a drug that is expected to have profound effects on civilization as it is a result of studying the Lakshi women, who are able to have children well into their 70s and 80s.
When Marina learns from her much older boss, Mr. Fox, the man she is in a quiet relationship with, that Anders is dead, she is eventually convinced to travel to the Amazon in order to continue his work. Her true motive for going, however, is to find out what really happened to Anders so that his wife and three young boys can get the closure that they need.
Marina knows Dr. Swenson, a previous mentor of hers who played a hand in yanking on the trajectory of Marina’s career many years ago from obstetrics to research, so much so that Marina struggles to face the incident. On the face of it, Marina appears to be an unlikely choice for leaving the predictability of her life in Minnesota in order to fulfill Vogel’s request: she suffers from night terrors, but driven by a sense of loyalty towards Anders and perhaps an unconscious realization that it is time to face her past, she travels to Brazil and into the jungle to find the field team.
Patchett interestingly chooses Minnesota, known as the ‘land of 1000 lakes’, that sits in the Midwest of America and is the northernmost state after Alaska, as the base for her American location. It is a place that endures extreme temperatures, with fiercely icy winters and hot summers. When the action unfolds in Minnesota, it does so in winter with Patchett presenting its people like its weather conditions: stoic, solid, practical. Her descriptions focus on the small details of life, the writing a reflection of the environmental mood: ‘It wasn’t a bright day but what light there was reflected off the snow and cast a wide silvery band.’ There is a sense that life there is on hold and waiting for things to thaw, with this temperament spilling over into the personalities of the characters. Marina, Mr. Fox, Anders’ wife, Dr. Swenson all slightly hold back parts of themselves, seeming to keep their cards close to their chest, until they slowly reveal them as the novel progresses, one at a time.
When the action shifts to South America, the weather continues to play a starring role, driving the decisions made by each of the characters. In the letter to Vogel informing them of Anders’ death, Dr. Swenson writes that ‘the rain has been torrential, not unseasonable yet year after year it continues to surprise me.’ Even the people Marina comes across in Brazil mirror the terrain of the Amazon rainforest, they remain slightly unknown, largely undiscovered although they are right there with us and do much to contribute to the overall depths of the story. In that sense, Patchett is effective in showing the barriers that naturally exist when characters are placed in countries where they do not speak the language and interact with a culture they are not familiar with. In using this approach, she is still able to tell a good story that shows the reader how people from different backgrounds do come together, how people strive to find a connection to each other but can still feel like outsiders, to themselves and to others, operating on the outskirts.
State of Wonder’s plot is an intriguing one, engaging and interesting, with the human story running right alongside it. Patchett sweeps a light across large issues like the rights of indigenous people, the work of pharmaceutical companies, the grey lines that fence relationships among characters, but at its core, the story seems to be about the individual struggles of the characters and their ability to come to terms with the decisions they make for their own lives. Patchett raises points about morality and truth, how much preconceived ideas filter through the lenses out of which characters’ see the world, how decisions are made based on those perceptions, the importance of facing the past in order to move forward and the patches of shadow that are just as important in revealing the essence of love and friendship as standing in their direct light.