Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Disptach from the Field: Joe's Having Trouble Leaving Patchett's Jungle

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. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past.

Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. 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.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, and a neighboring tribe of cannibals, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side.

Joe says:
"A day after finishing Ann Patchett's latest novel, I still feel as if I am returning from the jungle. So thoroughly was I taken in by this wonderful book. When a drug company doctor dies in the Amazon, Dr. Marina Singh is sent by her employer to find out what happened to Dr. Eckman, her dead co-worker. Marina, unable to shake nightmares of the past, travels to Brazil and then begins the quest to find the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, under whom she studied in med school, and who is now developing drugs in the jungle for their employer. This is a book that enveloped me. The deeply realized characters, the lush descriptions of scenery that is so foreign to me, the intelligent writing. I could almost swat away the insects, they were brought to such life! Marina's journey is more than just physical. The longer she stays in Brazil, the more she must unexpectedly overcome her own fears, about her present and from her past. The story surprised me, in that I didn't expect it to go where it did. That is always a joy to find in a book. "State of Wonder" is more than just a great novel, though. It is a lot to think about: how rooted in our culture are our morals? Is it okay to deceive someone if what you strive for can't be completed any other way? Is it truly okay to sacrifice the personal for the greater good? Ann Patchett explores these themes, among others, with thrilling prose, and left this reader truly in a state of wonder."

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