Love, Loss and Grief Inform Every Page of Ann Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’

Minnesota native Marina Singh is flying deep into Brazil’s rainforest, to a nameless village on a tributary of the Rio Negro, a place so isolated few know of it. Even fewer are able to locate it. Marina herself has no idea where the Lakashi tribe make their home, and Dr. Annick Swenson, the researcher studying them, has no interest in offering directions. Fortunately, what Marina lacks in GPS, she has in determination, which she sorely needs if she is to locate her colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman.

Marina, Swenson, and Eckman are medical researchers working for Vogel, an enormous pharmacological firm. For over two years, Swenson has refused to communicate with their supervisor, Mr. Fox, or by extension, with Vogel’s board of directors. The genial Eckman is asked to locate Swenson and extricate a progress report on her research. Eckman, an avid birder eager to visit an exotic locale, happily complies.

He manages to find Swenson and the Lakashi, but falls ill with a fever. In a place lacking internet cafes, comprehensive postal service, or text messaging, one must rely on villagers traveling to the nearest city, Manaus, to mail letters, slowing communication to a trickle of words. Thus Swenson’s terse note announcing Eckman’s death takes a good two weeks to arrive in Minnesota, where Marina must break the news to his wife, Karen.

Swenson took the liberty of burying Eckman in the jungle, a decision that enrages Karen. And so Marina, carrying a fancy cell phone and a New England Journal of Medicine article on Lakashi fertility, is sent on a twofold mission: to determine what Swenson is up to while learning the truth about Anders Eckman’s demise.

State of Wonder is a welcome return to vintage Patchett after 2007’s weaker Run. Patchett’s two attempts to write about African-American characters, Run and 2003’s Taft, are both well-intended, but lack the depth of Patchett’s finest writing, which is burnished and full of lovely detail. Of the guira cuckoos, who have “a downy scrub brush attached to the tops of their heads,” she writes: “A person could wash out the inside of a pickle jar with such a bird.” Manaus, the city closest to the Lakashi settlement, boasts an incongruously ornate opera house whose interior: “…was a wedding cake, every intricately decorated layer balanced delicately on the shoulders of the one beneath it, rising up and up to a ceiling where frescoed angels parted the wandering clouds with their hands.”

Two hours from this architectural marvel, the Lakashi inhabit a world so primitive it verges on the surreal. The forest floor crawls with every sort of slithering, stinging, biting thing. The air is alive with hard-shelled, bloodthirsty bugs and mosquitoes all but carrying signs advertising malaria. There are bad snakes and worse snakes and bats and nameless creepy crawlies that wouldn’t be lost if they wandered into a Stephen King novel. There are rare birds and even rarer people: the Lakashi women, who never experience menopause. Meaning they can, and do, become pregnant and give birth well into old age.

Annick Swenson has spent decades studying Lakashi women, attempting to distill this marvel of ageless fertility into pill form. The financial possibilities are making Vogel increasingly impatient for a marketable result, but Swenson is indifferent to her employers.

Annick Swenson’s complexity is a writer’s clinic in characterization. Initially she is a monster, a woman who overcame male oppression early in her career by becoming a monster herself. Swenson is not oblivious to the sufferings of others: she is disgusted by them. This is an unpleasant trait in any individual, but in doctors, particularly teaching doctors, the implications can be devastating.

Marina has secrets of her own. Her Indian father finished medical school only to leave his American wife and daughter for home, where he began a second family. With her dark eyes, hair, and complexion, Marina feels like a “llama” amid the Swedish blondes at family gatherings, a woman who is constantly questioned and in turn, questions herself. Her first encounter with Annick Swenson is not in the rain forest, but during medical school, where the doctor specialized in gynecological disorders. An imposing, terrifying presence, Swenson is the kind of professor students regard with fear and trembling even as they long to emulate her.

After weeks idling in Manaus, Marina finally meets Swenson, who offers a brief summary of her work and demands Marina, Fox, and Vogel leave her alone. She is dismissive of Anders Eckman, who had the temerity to interrupt her research. The faintest tenderness is evident only with her companion, a boy named Easter. Easter is about 12, stunted, deaf, and speechless. He is also highly intelligent, well-behaved, and mechanical, a rather handy mascot for an aging white doctor to keep company with in the jungle.

Easter is from the Hummocca tribe, a violent group who greet visitors with a rain of poisoned arrows. Failing that, they eat them. How Easter came to be with Dr. Swenson is a mystery until the end of the book, and one that I won’t disclose.

Despite Swenson’s efforts to dissuade her, Marina joins her on the return trip to the Lakashi village, a vividly evoked journey that, depending on your turn of mind, will either leave you longing to pack your bags or gazing fondly at your indoor plumbing. In this harsh environment, Marina is put to work in the lab, where she gradually befriends the handful of researchers able to tolerate the working conditions. As she earns their trust, the truth about Swenson’s research unfolds. Swenson also becomes a rounder personage; while scarcely a saint, nor is she a complete megalomaniac.

In this land far from peer oversight, medical ethics evaporate. Early in Swenson’s tenure, when the locals learn a doctor is in their midst, they rapidly turn her into a one-woman trauma center. She puts firm to halt to this, telling Marina, “It is not for me to meddle.” Later, she adds: “I am not Médicins Sans Frontières.” Yet she has no qualms about experimenting on herself or the other researchers on site–after all, who else is around? Nor do any of them feel the need to disclose to the Lakashi their deliberate exposure to Malaria, rationalizing that many are likely to acquire it anyway.

Finally, there is Easter. A loved and well-treated child, he’s also Swenson’s butler, man-of-all-work, and child substitute. It’s Easter who cares for the ailing Anders Eckman, Easter who pilots the pontoon in and out of Manaus, Easter who expertly navigates the forest floor, protecting Marina from snakebite.

At 353 pages, State of Wonder does what the best books do, taking up several threads and weaving them into a complex tapestry. Patchett touches on the ways Westerners infantilize “primitive” cultures, the financial and moral implications of medical, and the sometimes surprising pockets of courage we find at life’s critical junctures. Love, loss, and grief inform every page—Patchett’s writing has been indelibly impacted by the death of her dear friend, poet Lucy Grealey.

Recently I’ve seen State of Wonder popping up on “Summer reading” lists, with their connotations of light books you won’t be too upset about spilling sunblock on. Such lists do the book a great disservice. State of Wonder is a fall list book, a serious, returning-to-school book, a book you should share with all of your friends who love seriously good fiction.

Read State of Wonder. Read it at the beach if you must, but keep the sunblock from spilling on it. You’ll want to keep it.

RATING 9 / 10