State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My reaction to this one can be summed up in three words: State of Boredom.
It has been several years since I devoured Patchett’s Pen/Faulkner award winner Bel Canto, but I can still remember the very visceral sense of disappointment I felt that such a beautifully written story was saddled with such a terrible ending. I know from various reviews that I have read over the years that I was not alone in feeling this way. I had hoped that State of Wonder would wipe that bad taste from my mouth.
Dr. Marina Singh, a gifted pharmacologist, is dispatched to the Amazon by her employer, a large pharmaceutical company to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of her colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman. Dr. Eckman had been working on the team of Dr. Annick Swenson who was leading research on the development of a fertility drug that enables women to conceive children into old age.
Patchett’s set up was intriguing but as the story progressed, I felt like the primary motivators for Dr. Singh’s presence in the Amazon took a backseat to describing the more adventuresome aspects of life in the jungle. She vividly describes the scenes and the rituals of the Lakashi tribe amongst whom the research team is living, but I found myself just wishing that Dr. Singh would just find out what happened and get the heck out of there. The most compelling character for me was Easter, the young deaf orphan boy for whom Dr. Singh begins serving as a sort of surrogate mother.
While the “mystery” of what happened to Dr. Eckman did not prove to be as satisfying or suspenseful as I had hoped, I thought there was great potential here surrounding the development of the so-called miracle fertility drug. I was hoping that perhaps Patchett would tackle medical ethics and pressures associated with potentially life-changing research and that it would be handled as deftly as it was in Intuition by Allegra Goodman. Alas, the larger ethical issue of what will become of these children birthed to women so late in life is mentioned only briefly.
After staying up well past my bedtime to slog my way towards the end, I’m now turning to an author who has NEVER let me down to cleanse my palate of Patchett once again: Pete Hamill.