Novelist Ann Patchett has a knack for taking her readers to completely new places. In 2002's Bel Canto, she blended terrorism and opera and now — several acclaimed books and almost a decade later — Patchett's out with a new novel about an Amazonian expedition.
State of Wonder follows medical researcher Marina Singh as she joins her former mentor in a search to discover a promising and valuable new drug in the Amazon. Patchett tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that she spent 10 days in the Amazon to get a feel for the book's setting.
"For the first three days, I thought it was the most extraordinarily beautiful, fascinating, all-encompass[ingly] gorgeous place I had ever been to in my life," she says.
But the reality of life in the Amazon soon caught up with Patchett.
"It's just so oppressive. The jungle squeezes in on you from every side and you can't go anywhere by yourself," she says. "You can't take a walk unless you have a guide with you because there's so many little, tiny things out there that can kill you."
The Lakeshi Tribe's 'Cautionary Tale'
Among the things protagonist Marina Singh encounters on her voyage are poison arrows, hungry snakes and the fictional Lakeshi tribe, where the women enjoy lifelong fertility.
"This is a very isolated tribe," Patchett says. "They're cut off from everyone and these women have no idea that all women in the world don't have fertility forever."
Before the book was finished, Patchett says, women often recoiled when she told them about her fictional Lakeshi tribe. She acknowledges that it is a bit of a "horror novel," but it's also meant to address some women's desire to keep their childbearing options open.
"It's a bit of a cautionary tale," Patchett says. "There's so much discussion about how you can freeze your eggs, you can get a surrogate, you can have children as late as you want. And this is a story in which I say, 'Yes, you can have children as long as you want. But, in fact, it doesn't really look so good.'"
Into A Woman's 'Heart Of Darkness'
Patchett cites Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Evelyn Waugh's Handful of Dust and Henry James' The Ambassadors as major influences, and it's no wonder — as the story develops, Marina seems to be journeying both into the wilderness and into herself. She's a reluctant adventurer; a smart, brave woman who, in the course of the book, loses nearly every belonging she brought with her. Patchett hopes her tale of endurance will inspire.
"She finds out so much about herself as she loses her luggage and her cell phone and her contacts with civilization and ultimately her clothes. She really finds her own strength," Patchett says. "She's telling us, 'If you are thrown off a cliff and into an ocean, you're gonna figure out how to swim.'"
It's the kind of lesson Patchett has put to use in her own writing career, where tackling so many disparate, exotic elements in one novel can quickly become daunting.
"Every single time I'm writing a book, I get to a certain place where I think, 'I cannot do this. I can't pull this off,'" Patchett says. "And the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I have always pulled it off before."