Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder”–a mystery and a story about conflicting loyalties in the Amazonian forest

So many times it seems that I start a post wanting to share my sense of the book, but am forced to “spoil” the plot by retelling large chunks of it in order to make my points about the quality of a book.  This time, however, even if my post turns out to be a great deal shorter than usual (which is what I always seem to threaten but rarely deliver on), I’m determined to keep the book’s character development and events largely a mystery because they are just too good to ruin for my readers.

The story in State of Wonder begins in Minnesota at Vogel, a large pharmaceutical company, which has recently received news about Anders Eckman, a lab technician who has been sent to the Amazon to check on the progress of a recalcitrant researcher (a Dr. Swenson, who is in her seventies).  Dr. Swenson has sent news that Eckman has died of a fever.  Marina Singh, Eckman’s office mate, receives the news from her boss, Mr. Fox, with whom it later turns out she is having an affair.  Neither is married to or involved with anyone else, because this isn’t where the drama of the story lies, but also because there is a certain constraint between them due to their relative positions in the company, Marina calls him only “Mr. Fox,” seems mostly to think of him that way, and only uses his first name about once.

From the beginning, there is a blurriness between the loyalty Mr. Fox feels to his relationship with Marina and his use of her as an employee.  When he goes to tell Karen Eckman about her husband’s death, he leaves Marina to do the hard emotional work, and leaves it largely to her after that to care for Karen’s upset over the issue and her urgent insistence that she would know if Anders were actually dead.  There is also an obscurity in the pull Marina feels between helping Karen and helping Mr. Fox, until the two threads of narrative entertwine:  it turns out that whatever it is that Mr. Fox feels for Marina, he wants her to go to the Amazon and push Dr. Swenson some more about her research, when it will be done, for example, what the results are.  It is a fertility drug being researched in the confines of the Lakashi nation as far as Marina knows.

There is some play with conflict in the early parts of the novel when Marina must decide whether or not to go to the Amazonian jungle and resolve the mystery surrounding Eckman’s death while also prodding Dr. Swenson for her employer.  One such moment of indecision for Marina is when she must decide whether or not to take Lariam, an anti-malaria drug which causes almost hallucinogenic nightmares in the taker, as Marina knows because she had to take it as a child in order to visit her father in India.  Another is when she distances herself from Mr. Fox’s demands by taking with her a special cell phone he has sent, while leaving it in her suitcase, which gets inconveniently (or conveniently) lost.  Finally, when she reaches Manaus, Dr. Swenson’s port-of-call on a bi-monthly basis for supplies, there is the sense of straining loyalties as well.  Dr. Swenson has left Barbara and Jackie Bovender, a married couple of alternative culture nature, in charge of her apartment and of fending off inquiries about where exactly in the jungle she is.  They themselves don’t even know exactly, and Dr. Swenson in the protection of her research has cut herself off from telephone, computer, and every other form of modern technology, even from her employer.  The Bovenders genuinely like Marina and are torn by their obligations to be nice to her and also to respect the wishes of Dr. Swenson, their employer.

When Marina finally makes contact with Dr. Swenson and a young deaf Hummocca boy whom she adopted in the past under unarticulated circumstances, she is at first strenuously rejected by Dr. Swenson and then unwillingly accepted.  It turns out that Dr. Swenson was once Marina’s teacher and mentor before she became a pharmocologist, when both were in obstetrics, and Marina made a serious error in a caesarian section, one which she herself saw as a reason to change careers.  Since the drug being researched involves fertility, there is an overlap of interests, as when Marina gets to meet the Lakashi people and becomes willy-nilly their obstetrician and general surgeon.  She is very, very unwilling to do so, but because of Dr. Swenson’s past and present influence over her, her loyalty causes her to allow herself to be committed to the project.

Past this point, I am unwilling to proceed, because I don’t want to give everything away.  But I will give some hints:  the fertility drug can cause unexpected people to become pregnant, and has some interesting side effects; Anders Eckman’s death has more to it than is first articulated, much, much more; there are other doctors there doing an unproclaimed kind of research with Dr. Swenson; Marina Singh experiences some of the joys and perils of “going native,” as it used condescendingly to be called, a topic in literature important in such works as The Heart of Darkness most noticeably; and the most heartbreaking scene in the whole book is when the deaf boy, Easter, whose hero was Eckman before Eckman disappeared, is used unwittingly at first as a counter in an unexpected barter.  Beyond these hints, which I hope will lead you to discover the book for yourself and experience the complexity of Patchett’s ability to consider all variables involved in experiments with life forces and the interactions between different peoples, I won’t go.  Please dip into the book at your earliest opportunity, and follow it through to the startling ending.


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

3 responses to “Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder”–a mystery and a story about conflicting loyalties in the Amazonian forest

  1. Thanks for reminding me so eloquently of this novel, Victoria. It is now on my ever-growing list. I loved her memoir, Truth and Beauty.


    • You’re entirely welcome, and thanks for the compliment. I always feel flattered by the number of enthusiasms we share. i can see I’ll need to read her memoir when I get through some of my own list.


  2. Valerie Stivers-Isakova

    Huh, your plot summary reminds me of more of the novely novelish things I didn’t like about this book. Both Mr. Fox and the Bovenders felt like such “characters”, somehow. Everyone felt theoretical. But it was still a very thought-provoking book.


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