State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (2011)

Genre: Borderline Speculative Fiction
Interest Level: Adult
State of WonderDr. Marina Singh has always lived in two worlds. She’s the daughter of a blonde Minnesota mother and an Indian father with another, traditional family. As she grew up she and her mother would regularly leave the northern US state for hot and crowded India for visits with her father who could not leave the land he loved for the woman he loved. Today, Marina is a pharmacologist. She’d been studying obstetrics when a Cesarean section went wrong, and she blinded the baby. In her shame and horror, she changed her specialty to pharmacology. This is how she came to be working for Vogel Pharmaceuticals, and how she heads to the Amazon rainforest after news of a colleague’s unexpected death there. She is to find out how he died, what happened to his body, and to check on the progress of the brilliant Dr. Annick Swenson who has for years been working on a drug that extends women’s fertility well into old age. But first she has to find the research station, deep in the jungle that threatens visitors with malaria-inducing insects, snakes that kill, trees with blood-drawing thorns. Oh, and the people. Patchett draws the reader into the story as slowly and relentlessly as a constrictor’s squeeze. Marina finds herself as helpless as an abandoned child in the strange city of Manaus, but shows a quiet determination as she persists in her goal of finding Dr. Swanson’s research station. We get the sense of an almost silent resolve as she tries to make sense of the heat, the food, the milky muddy river and the strange characters who fill this world so different from the one she calls home. But as she did as a child in the world of her father, she finds things to love about this strange place, from the enchanting deaf child Easter to the beauties of the jungle. Pushed always by the acerbic Dr. Swanson, Marina begins to rediscover the strengths she buried when she put down her scalpel. This is a lovely novel, slow to develop, but beautiful to watch, like a butterfly from a cocoon. Patchett’s descriptive prose is like listening to a waltz; you just want to sit back and enjoy it at leisure. My only criticism is that as a pharmacologist (though not a botanist, I’ll admit), Marina’s character is remarkably disinterested in the jungle and its treasures. I kept wanted more description of the drug work and the plants being studied, and the magic they promise. Not quite sci-fi, not quite realism, but something in between, and no word yet exists to describe it.
More discussion and reviews of this novel: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9118135-state-of-wonder

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About Michelle Mallette
I'm just trying to keep track of the books I've read - what I liked and what isn't worth re-reading. My work as a librarian has included youth services so you'll find a wide range of interests from picture books and teen dystopia to adult sci-fi, road trip novels, and nonfiction. Comments and communication is always welcome.

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