Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is being widely touted as a kind of Heart of Darkness for gals. To be sure, the similarity goes beyond the three-word titles divided by “of.” Who’s to say that Marlow, had he lived in our times, wouldn’t have been a research scientist for a Minnesota pharmaceutical company like Patchett’s protagonist Marina Singh?
Brazil fills in for the Belgian Congo as 42-year-old Marina travels deep into the amazon in the wake of the death of her lab colleague, Anders Eckman. Awaiting her is our lady-Kurtz, the brilliant, Svengali-like Dr. Swenson, who was once Marina’s professor in medical school. Dr. Swenson has spent decades in the jungle developing a drug for Vogel, the company Marina works for, under a shroud of secrecy. Lately, however, Dr. Swenson has cut herself off from contact with the outside world; the company doesn’t even know where her research station is. Anders’ mission had been to find her and report on her progress, and with his death comes added pressure to get Dr. Swenson out of the jungle and the drug to market.
What the company is after would be even more valuable than the ivory the colonials slaughter each other for in Conrad’s novel—at least in terms of share price. Dr. Swenson’s research centres on the Lakashi, an isolated tribe whose women remain fertile well into old age by chewing on the bark of a rare tree. If a drug can chemically mimic this process, the business of female fertility will be revolutionized, along with Vogel’s P/E ratio.
Unattached, childless, and uncommonly loyal, Marina is elected the perfect candidate for the journey. First, however, she must get past the Bovenders, a hippie couple hired by Dr. Swenson to play the role of Cerberus to her Amazonian underworld, their job being to keep outsiders at bay and her whereabouts secret. Marina spends two weeks in Manaus in an odd state of limbo with the couple, their easygoing mien at odds with their unspoken power. The anticipation finally ends in a memorable scene in which Dr. Swenson crashes her own box at the opera where Marina and the Bovenders are taking in a performance of Orfeo—the relevance of its underworldly plot to her own situation not lost on Marina.
Marina is an appealingly modern, understated heroine. Although she finds Brazil oppressive, her mixed Indian/American looks allow her to blend in seamlessly. Tourists ask to have their picture taken next to her, assuming her to be a member of the Lakashi. Marina also has father issues, her own having left the family for India when she was a child. Now her anti-malarial medication induces nightmares that force her to revisit this separation nightly.
Mr. Fox, the company head with whom Marina is having a clandestine affair and who is much older than she, clearly fills a father-figure role. As the human face of Vogel—Patchett also conscripts him to lend some nuance to the default pharmaceutical villains we’ve become accustomed to. Mr. Fox is tender, empathetic, but also naively trusting, having given Dr. Swenson “the kind of latitude that another company would have laughed at.” The vulpine name suggests that we’re to see him as more like a cunning character from a nursery rhyme than a soulless corporate gladiator.
Marina returns to the station with a begrudging Dr. Swenson, where she finds astounding proof of the latter’s research claims. Despite being in her seventies, Dr. Swenson still exerts a powerful force over Marina: “All these years later, she still listened to Dr. Swenson as a student listens to a teacher, as a Greek listens to an oracle.” Even the Lakashi, who don’t understand her language, intuit her power and treat her like a god.
The long period Marina spends in the jungle is broken up by two dramatic interludes, one involving snake wrestling, the other a caesarian section performed in compromised circumstances. Both function, narratively, as a way for Marina to “undo” a medical school mistake that still haunts her. This kind of redemptive symbolism feels a bit like matching your socks to your purse—yet the artful suspense Patchett builds is undeniable.
This is a masterful novel whose intrigue and adventure is matched by emotional and intellectual depth. Patchett’s effortless, sophisticated prose makes for perfect summer reading, although I do wish she hadn’t felt compelled to wrap things up quite as neatly as she does plot-wise. In the end, Kurtz’s incantation “the horror! the horror!” is never echoed; the heart of this captivating novel is not so dark after all.