Friday, May 13, 2011

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett (from the ARC, on sale May 27, 2011) HarperCollins Canada, 353 pages

I've long admired Ann Patchett's prose from her memoir TRUTH AND BEAUTY about her extraordinary friendship with Lucy Greely to her Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel BEL CANTO to her gem-of-a-graduation-address WHAT NOW? It seems to me that her literary star has already risen and secured itself in the heavens, but her most recent book STATE OF WONDER has proved me wrong. It is her most accomplished book to date and her apotheosis is yet to come.

Here's the brilliant, beguiling opening:

"The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world."

Years ago, Dr. Marina Singh traded a frenetic, tension-filled life as an ob-gyn for a less stressful life of research in a pharmaceutical lab. At Vogel, she met both Anders Eckman, her lab mate, and Mr. Fox, its CEO and her current lover, a liaison about which she remains guarded. When the letter arrives from Dr. Annick Swenson in the Brazilian jungle where Anders had been sent to report on the progress of an extraordinary drug in development and Swenson pens, "I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy," Mr. Fox knows he must be the one to break this devastating news to Anders' wife Karen. He is the one, after all, who put his life at risk by sending him to the Amazon on Vogel business.

Marina accompanies Mr. Fox to the Eckmans's home and recognizes right away that the family dog, Pickles, a golden retriever, "would have to stand in for their minister if they had one. The dog would be Karen's mother, her sister, whoever it was she wished was standing next to her when everything came down. The dog would have to be Anders." Later that same night Karen phones Marina and challenges the news: "But say he's not dead. I know you don't believe it but just say. Say that he's sick and needs me to come and find him." And, because Karen cannot leave her young sons, she asks Marina if she would go in her place. Marina agrees.

To prepare for her journey into a remote part of the Amazonian jungle, Marina takes antimalarial medication. The Lariam leads to recurring childhood nightmares of being separated from her father in a crowd in India when she was just a little girl: "the people around them rose up like a tide and she was then forced to let him go...her deepest fear, her father's hand slipping from her hand." Before Marina leaves, she visits Karen to read Anders' most recent letter to Karen for clues and it's then that Karen knowingly confides, "Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it."

Arriving in Brazil, Marina is met by a local fixer called Milton who is gracious and welcoming and sets her up in a hotel room in Manaus where she must wait for either Dr. Swenson to come to town to pick up perishables or for Dr. Swenson's protectors, the Bovenders, a young married couple who seem to have the job of preventing access to the very person Marina needs to see. While waiting for either to appear, Marina immerses herself in Dr. Swenson's writing about the reproductive endocrinology in the Lakashi people, an isolated Amazonian tribe "whose women appeared to give birth well into their seventies" or she reads the Henry James novel she brought to distract herself from the upsetting business of finding out what actually happened to her friend.

In one of her few phone calls home to Mr. Fox, Marina learns that the Lakashi "chew some sort of bark while it's still on the tree" and that is why they remain fertile well past the expected years of any other women. With that information, we have a hint of what might be to come and why Vogel pharmaceuticals continues to pour an endless supply of money into the mind-blowing research that Dr. Swenson is conducting in the heart of the jungle.

Throughout STATE OF WONDER there are plenty of allusions to Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS and Kingsolver's THE POISONWOOD BIBLE and your reading will be all the richer if you have those two novels in your mind's eye. However, the reverence for the natural world is the novel's watermark:

"The quiet that was left without her was layered, subtle: at first Marina only heard it as silence, the absence of human voices, but once her ear had settled into it the other sounds began to rise, the deeply forested chirping, the caw that came from the tops of trees, the chattering of lower primates, the incessant sawing of insect life. It was not unlike the overture of the opera."

And, there are equally terrifying scenes: one that had my heart thumping involved an anaconda. Yet, Patchett, being Patchett, pens this wondrous strange moment with grace.

So much of what happens at the heart of this remarkable book must not be revealed. You need to peel back the layers yourself and marvel moment to moment alongside Marina as she discovers truths about the jungle and herself.

When I first heard the title STATE OF WONDER, I immediately thought of Glenn Gould's landmark recording of the Goldberg Variations. And, it is a rather apt analogy for a book in which lives are improvised from variation to variation using humanity as the bass note.

STATE OF WONDER is sure to be one of the most talked about books of 2011. You must read it.

1 comment:

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