In State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (this is the first of her novels I’ve read) Maria Singh works for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota and the last place she wants to go is Brazil, in particular the tributary of the Amazon where her good friend and colleague Anders Eckman has just met his death. But Maria is under a double obligation – to Anders’ wife and three sons, to whom she has to relay the scant news of what happened to him, and to her boss who is responsible for sending Anders to the research outpost in the jungle to investigate why work there has stalled.
It’s already an intriguing premise, and by the time Marina is on her way a few
more layers of interest have been added. Her boss Jim Fox is also her
clandestine lover, and the woman she is to locate and interrogate is her former teacher and mentor Dr. Swenson, a woman both admired and feared by all her students and under whose tutelage Marina made a horrific medical blunder from
which her professional self-esteem has never recovered.
I loved this book so much it’s hard to dissect it and work out what makes it so good, except that I instantly felt ‘in the skin’ of the main character, who presents a calm and purposeful exterior to colleagues but reveals to the reader the sources of her frequent nightmares. These nightmares are heightened by taking an
anti-malarial drug that forces her to choose between the physical protection it
offers and her sanity. I particularly liked the episode on her flight to Manaus
where memories jostle with waking nightmares and the mundane irritations of air travel, revealing the mish-mash of fear and confusion in which she is trapped.
In Manaus she immediately falls victim to a fever which nearly kills her, but with her lover urging her on (from the safety of his office in Minnesota) she continues her journey to her personal heart of darkness. The fact that her luggage
is repeatedly lost or stolen means that she has to face her demons without even a toothbrush to connect her to civilisation.
The descriptions of the jungle and its discomforts are as vivid as anything in Poisonwood Bible, but seen entirely through the eyes of a woman who is terrified of being where she is and increasingly angry with those who have put her there.
Marina’s journey does eventually take her beyond fear and beyond anger to self-discovery and self-belief. But it’s her initial vulnerability and the author’s ability to put us insideMarina’s head that got this reader hooked.
For all I know the science in the book may be as far-fetched as one reviewer argues, but for me there wasn’t the slightest shadow of disbelief, and I was only sorry that a great read came to an end in a tidy 300 or so pages, when for me the story had a real epic quality.
This was my holiday read in Florence and it proved an excellent if not particularly apposite choice. Anyone looking for something to get in the Tuscan mood should check out Dove Grey Reader ‘s recent post on Reading Italy. Next up I’ll be offering some different holiday advice.