Ann Patchett's newest novel State of Wonder opens with news of the death of Anders Eckman, a researcher for a Minnesota pharmaceutical company who was sent to the Amazon to check on the progress of a company financed field team. His coworker and friend, Marina Singh is soon sent in search of answers regarding Eckman's death as well as the status of the field team, which Eckman had not satisfactorily reported upon. Singh is swept from the safe confines of the lab where she long ago ensconced herself after a devastating error during her obstetrical training drove her to change specialties to the alien world of the Amazon rainforests, where more questions than answers await her.
Singh's journey, like all great literary journeys, is both internal and external. We are with her as she struggles to come to terms with her past, her present, her possible futures. We suffer her disorientation as she tries to adjust to the claustrophobic and sometimes threatening landscape around her. Patchett does an astounding job bringing the natural world of the Amazon alive on the page--rarely does a scene pass without mention of the teeming insect life, the presence of deadly reptiles and amphibians, swift and violent changes in weather, the vegetation so dense and all-consuming that it seems at times to be sentient, maybe malevolent. Just as Singh is utterly immersed in her setting so, too, is the reader.
Patchett's ability to bring such a hectic and diverse place alive on the page without a hint of heavy-handedness is reason enough to pick up the book, but she brings an equally deft touch to her characters and the themes playing out in their lives. This adventure story touches on the topics of corporate greed, personal ambition, cultural interference, medical and scientific ethics. How do we measure the value of a human life? Where is the line between exploration and exploitation? Who decides? Are there ends which can justify any means? Is there a limit to the moral transgressions we will overlook when in the presence of true brilliance? What happens when it becomes clear that arrogance and altruism are not only not mutually exclusive but may in fact be interdependent?
State of Wonder is a lushly written book that left me with lots to think about.
Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Riveting.
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