It's not often that a novel leaves me (temporarily) speechless. But Ann Patchett's new novel isn't called State of Wonder for nothing, because that's exactly the state I've been in ever since I first opened it. The numbness has worn off by now, but for days, all I could say to friends who asked me about it was the one-word review "Wow."
If you're familiar with Patchett's work, particularly her most famous novel, Bel Canto, you know that her imagination roams far afield without sacrificing authenticity or lyrical power. The idea of terrorists invading the South American estate of an opera-loving Japanese businessman sounds like a premise for a disposable thriller; in Patchett's hands, of course, it turned out to be a riveting mediation on how love can reveal itself in unexpected human and artistic forms. State of Wonder revisits the South American locale and even features a key scene that takes place in the Manaus Opera House deep in the Amazonian rain forest of Brazil. Otherwise, the basic plot of State of Wonder is more directly indebted to those classic tales where Western explorers delve deep into the primitive "off the map" places left on the planet and in their own psyches. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the main inspiration here, but old English majors will catch references to other "gone native" tales like Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, where an adventurer marooned in the Brazilian jungle consoles himself, as Patchett's characters do, by reading a mildewed collection of the works of Charles Dickens.
The gist of the storyline of State of Wonder is this: Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year-old research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, is sent to Brazil to locate the remains of her deceased lab mate — a nice family guy who was himself sent into the rain forest months earlier to find another employee, the reclusive Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson has been in the wild 10 years, working to unlock the secret to the prolonged fertility of an isolated Amazonian tribe. The women of that tribe give birth well into their 70s, and if the fertility chemical found in a rare tree bark can be distilled and made available back in the States, it will be, as Marina's deceased co-worker once said, "menstruation everlasting ... the equivalent of Lost Horizon for American ovaries." Marina is an ideal candidate for what turns out to be a female explorer tale because she's so alone: Apart from a secret tepid affair with her boss, the most profound human connection she has had for years has been the daily small talk she shared with her dead colleague. With so little to lose, Marina sets off for the Amazon, dully suspecting that what awaits her there may well be "the horror, the horror."
Over half of State of Wonder is devoted to Marina's struggles in the rain forest, and one of the miracles of this novel — at least to a non-nature enthusiast like me — is just how inexhaustibly enthralling Patchett's descriptions of the flora, fauna, ants and anacondas are. Here's a snippet of a description of Marina walking out of the airport in Manaus and following her driver to his car:
The outside air was heavy enough to be bitten and chewed. Never had Marina's lungs taken in so much oxygen, so much moisture. With every inhalation she felt she was introducing unseen particles of plant life into her body, tiny spores that bedded down in between her cilia and set about taking root. An insect flew against her ear, emitting a sound so piercing that her head snapped back as if struck ... They were not in the jungle, they were in a parking lot.
Similarly, the characters Marina stumbles upon in the Amazon are uncharted worlds unto themselves: There's a strange young slacker couple who act as gatekeepers for Dr. Swenson; a deaf native boy named "Easter" whom Marina comes to cherish as a son; and the imperious Dr. Swenson, the center of the mysteries, who holds herself and her colleagues to almost suicidally high standards of self-denial. Even with such a relatively limited cast of characters, Patchett keeps the plot twisting, turning, like one of those slithery anacondas, until the very last pages. This is a masterpiece of a novel about the awful price of love and the terror of its inevitable loss. As much as readers will surely come to admire Marina for her explorer's bravery, we should also applaud Patchett for her own fearlessness in expanding the terrain of the possible in storytelling.