June 13 (Bloomberg) -- In “State of Wonder,” Ann Patchett returns to the tropical setting of her best-known novel, “Bel Canto,” and delivers another entrancing, ambitious tale.
The book opens in the most prosaic of locations: the headquarters of the Vogel pharmaceutical company in snow-covered Minnesota. Marina Singh, an obstetrician turned drug researcher, is sitting in her lab when a tissue-thin blue Aerogram -- “Who even knew they still made such things?” -- brings terrible news:
Marina’s lab mate, Anders Eckman, is dead, buried two weeks ago in the Amazon jungle.
The Aerogram is delivered by Jim Fox, Vogel’s Chief Executive, whom Marina thinks of as Mr. Fox despite the fact that she’s secretly sleeping with him. It was Mr. Fox who sent Anders to Brazil, on a quest for information about an important research project that seems to be going off the rails.
Imagine an Amazonian tribe whose women keep bearing children into their 70s, never hitting menopause. Vogel will earn billions if the company can figure out how these women have extended their fertility and produce a drug to help women around the world do the same.
Mr. Fox wants to learn what happened to Anders, but he also (and especially) wants to know what’s going on with the project. He sends an uneasy Marina to find answers.
Descent Into Hell
Patchett’s lush prose is perfectly suited to describing Marina’s descent into this hot, sticky hell:
“Every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction. She was a snack plate, a buffet line, a woman dressed for springtime in the North.”
If this is starting to sound familiar, perhaps you’ve read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” But in Patchett’s fresh version, it’s a woman penetrating the unknown, and it’s a woman she’s seeking. The research is being led by Dr. Annick Swenson, a pivotal figure from Marina’s past: She was the medical-school professor who intimidated Marina into making a career-changing mistake.
One of the wonderful things about Patchett’s novels is that she finds the absolute individuality -- and humanity -- in all her characters. She doesn’t seem to know how to create a villain, though the imperious Dr. Swenson keeps threatening to become one. (She makes Marina feel “like Oliver Twist holding up his empty bowl.”)
This keeps Patchett’s books from turning into thrillers no matter how much high-stakes plot she packs into them. Bugs bite, luggage is lost and Marina has screaming nightmares. Once she arrives at Dr. Swenson’s mysterious jungle outpost, there are 15-foot snakes, poison arrows and cannibals to avoid.
Through it all you read on, fearing that something terrible will happen but trusting that Patchett’s deep intelligence and generous nature will give it all meaning in the end.
There are some striking images here. When Marina reads that Aerogram, “there was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.” When she arrives at the airport in Brazil, she sees “enormous suitcases piled on top of one another like sandbags ready to stem a rising tide.”
But unlike many writers, Patchett doesn’t call attention to herself with her fluid prose. Her books are a rare combination of literary and popular, full of subtle investigations of big ideas yet smoothly written and packed with intrigue and suspense. This is the book I’ll be recommending to all my friends this summer.
“State of Wonder” is published by Harper in the U.S. and Bloomsbury in the U.K. (353 pages, $26.99, 12.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Laurie Muchnick writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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