State of Wonder
Harper: 368 pp., $26.99
In Ann Patchett's new novel, "State of Wonder," an ordinary woman winds up in increasingly extraordinary circumstances. That woman is Marina Singh, a 42-year-old pharmaceutical researcher who travels to a remote part of the Amazon after receiving news that her colleague Anders has died there.
The dutiful daughter of an American mother and an Indian father who divorced when she was young, Singh seems an unlikely choice for a jungle adventure. Despite her dark looks, which set her apart, she feels truly at home in Minnesota with its chill temperatures and wide-open prairies. She returned there after her training and likes her quiet laboratory job. She also likes the man in charge of the company where she works — the widowed Mr. Fox, and yes, "silver fox" is implied — with whom she has a budding, if secret, relationship.
It is this relationship, however, that draws Singh into the puzzle of her lost colleague. The company has been financing the Amazonian work of the formidable Dr. Swenson, under whom Singh once studied. The exact location of Swenson is unknown, and she has cut off communications. Anders, an amiable scientist who shared a lab with Singh, was sent to Brazil to track down Swenson and assess her progress on a new drug. That drug is so secret that using outsiders to check on its development is out of the question; even as Singh agrees to go, Fox is reluctant to tell her exactly what it is.
What Swenson may have discovered is a feminine fountain of youth. An Amazonian tribe, the Lakashi, is populated by women who remain fertile their entire lives, giving birth into their 80s. If Swenson has completed her task in translating that to drug form, the life choices of American women could shift as significantly as they did after the advent of the pill. More important for Mr. Fox, the company stands to make a fortune.
The setup is like a feminized "Heart of Darkness." A powerful figure goes into the jungle and cuts ties to civilization; a messenger is sent to discover what has happened and whether it will be possible to bring that person back. But Patchett replaces the savagery in Joseph Conrad's tale with fecundity: In her story, the deepest region of the jungle is a place of fertility and rebirth.
That's not to say it's without its hazards. Even traveling to Brazil is difficult for Singh, who is drastically affected by her malaria medicine and has terrible nightmares of childhood trips to India to visit her father. These nightmares fill pages of the book and are as frightening as anything Singh faces on her journey. Arriving in the Brazilian city of Manaus, Singh is liberated of her luggage, losing her cellphone and clothes; she's also unsettled, isolated, by the trappings of the new place.
Despite herself, she learns her way around — how to keep dry during the tropical rainstorms, to take shelter from the devastating midday heat and to appreciate the astonishing opera house: "Suddenly every insect in Manaus was forgotten.… The children with fans that waved the flies away from the baskets of fish were forgotten even as she knew she was not supposed to forget the children. She longed to forget them. She managed to forget the smells, the traffic, the sticky pools of blood. The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival. It kept them from rotting in the unendurable heat. It saved their souls in ways those murdering Christian missionaries could never have envisioned."
She also learns to wait with genuine patience. A pair of young, stylish travelers living in Swenson's Manaus apartment serve as the doctor's protectors and gatekeepers. Singh — as Anders before her — must convince them that she is trustworthy.
As the book progresses, Singh unfolds sheets of memory, revealing major life episodes — including a failed early marriage — that she had buried and forgotten. She details, in bits and pieces, a deeper history shared with Swenson than she was willing to acknowledge back in Minnesota. Her surfacing past resonates with the challenges she faces. Eventually, Singh's waiting pays off, and she travels upriver.
Singh's time in Manaus drags a bit: Since Page 1, we've been waiting for her to get to Swenson's jungle lab. What she finds there doesn't fulfill Conradian expectations: Exactly what's happening in the jungle will take Singh time to understand, time during which she continues to sink into her surroundings. She adapts so completely to her new environment that at one point she is taken for a native.
Her fate, the mystery surrounding Anders and the future of the people around her become entangled as the book speeds to an exciting close. Patchett creates a compelling mystery, and yet Singh, despite her adapted appearance, remains a tourist, one who never learns the languages around her, who finds the Lakashi's phonetics too foreign to even learn their names. At some deeper, uncomfortable level, she remains an interloper, one with circumscribed empathy and little ability to treat the people of Brazil as individuals. Perhaps this is a larger statement about how Americans interact with the developing world. Or maybe it's because Singh, despite her best intentions, remains the agent of a pharmaceutical company.