From the moment I read the blurb, I knew I'd pick this book up and try Patchett's work yet again. Though the book was not a perfect one, the premise is fantastic...
Note: I tried to come up with my own blurb, but given the complicated plot and a severe case of brain drain, I gave up and pilfered the publisher's synopsis. It does the job.
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations.
Straight off, I was taken with the idea of a romp through the Amazon with Patchett's characters. Dr. Swenson is an enigmatic matriarch to her colleagues and the Lakashi tribe alike; she's thoroughly difficult for Marina to read and given their uneasy teacher/student relationship, Marina is freakin' scared of her. For Marina to find herself in a number of situations wherein Dr. Swenson depends on her was thoroughly transforming for the character of Marina Singh. It was a worthwhile transformation to follow through this novel, and Patchett did a wonderful job characterizing Singh and Swenson.
I was also very taken with the peripheral characters in the novel including the deceased Anders Eckman and his wife, Karen. The brilliant, deaf boy, Easter. And I can't forget the majestic Mr. Fox, one of the pharmaceutical company big-wigs and Marina's secret lover. The interplay between such a complicated cast of characters made for a rich novel and convincing story.
It did take me a while to sink into this novel thoroughly as those opening chapters were slow in traditional Patchett style. However, as I moved through the book I was glad she took the time to introduce me to all of the characters and also to Brazil itself. In the early part of her journey, Marina spends time in Manaus and later heads off into the rainforest. The setting itself is the most vibrant character in the novel.
The second half of the book, Marina's time in the rainforest interacting with the Lakashi tribe and following Dr. Swenson's research, comprised the quickest of the novel's pacing, but some of it struck me as unbelievable. While I loved that Dr. Swenson was such a bitch and had such strong control over her charges, I found it hard to believe that a tribe with which she could hardly communicate would bow down at her feet. Meh. Not so much. I also wish Marina had had a bit more difficulty settling into life with the tribe. There were some dramatic moments, but I felt that Patchett put all of her effort into making the characters realistic in the early pages of the novel, the tribe itself suffered from a lack of attention in comparison. I also felt that Patchett went for some cheap plot twists. I can't be specific without giving too much away, but some of the turns the story took were surprising only because they were so obvious.
Beyond the characterization and beyond some of the novel's shortfalls, it was a supremely interesting read for the ethical questions it posed. Dr. Swenson's research holds huge ethical implications and could change medicine entirely. I thought it really interesting that she put herself into some touchy situations when she was really just a big old snake in the grass. She was one of those characters I wanted to believe but always suspected of doing despicable things. She was a hard one to read and that makes her all the more worthwhile to read.
While I expected State of Wonder to blow the top of my head off with its wonderfulness, I found it a little too uneven for that and a little too predictable in spots. I'm still glad I read this book, and I would recommend it to almost anyone for the well-written characters, the unique setting, and the wonderful ethical dilemmas. It probably won't make my top ten for 2012, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it fares in the Tournament of Books.
Snuggle (one-armed hug) -- Skewer
Pub. Date: June 2011