Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: "State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett strikes again. The author of several sensational novels, including Bel Canto, as well as Truth and Beauty, a moving and inspiring memoir recounting her friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, has written another thought-provoking and beautifully told novel, State of Wonder.

Dr. Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher working for a major pharmaceutical company. After her close friend and colleague dies under mysterious circumstances in the Amazonian jungle while on company business, her employer sends her to the jungle to complete his assignment—track down Dr. Anneck Swenson, a renowned and reclusive gynecologist whose research into the reproductive habits of a local tribe the company has funded for years. (The women of this tribe can continue to bear healthy children long after mid-life.) The company is interested in determining the status of Dr. Swenson's research; Marina is interested in collecting her friend's effects. Neither task goes as smoothly as hoped, as Dr. Swenson doesn't appreciate the company's desire to monitor her work, and the jungle proves to be both mentally and physically harrowing for Marina. And encountering Dr. Swenson, who supervised Marina's residency a lifetime ago, brings back to the forefront memories she has tried to suppress.

This is a tremendously fascinating story, populated with characters who are far more complex than they appear to be when you first encounter them. More than simply a story of woman versus jungle or woman versus her past, State of Wonder explores the creatures—both physical and metaphorical—that frighten, challenge and could potentially harm us, and the ripples that one action can cause many people. I was gripped from start to the finish, and found myself surprised even when I didn't think I could be. This is beautifully written and very affecting—a definite must-read.

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