State of Wonder is the perfect summer read for people whose idea of a perfect summer read does not involve turning off their brains. It is smart, engaging, complicated, dramatic, suspenseful, moving and terribly exciting. That part–the fact that is exciting–is the aspect of the book that strikes me as apropos for summer, when there are so many ways to spend one’s time (road trips, beach vacations, outdoor dance parties…) that it can be tough for a written narrative to compete. This book, though, certainly captured my attention and imagination enough, even when I was reading it on a particularly beautiful day, seated beside the Hudson River, that all else receded into the background.
In this novel, a Minnesotan pharmaceuticals researcher, Marina Singh, is sent by her boss (and lover), and at the behest of her friend’s widow, to the Amazon to discover the mystery behind her lab-mate’s cryptically reported death and to seek out a rogue scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is less than forthcoming on the progress of her company-financed work on a miracle fertility drug. As one might imagine, the obstacles Marina encounters are numerous–her own nightmares induced by a malaria drug, Dr. Swenson’s gatekeepers: a young, golden couple called the Bovenders who keep Marina, like the missing Anders before her, in a holding pattern in a Brazilian town at the edge of the jungle, illness as well as the constant threat of it, hard-backed beetles, anacondas, an opaque putrid river, unmarked tributaries leading, like exits off of a highway, to the remote homes of tribes potentially friendly or hostile, and most difficult to navigate, the obstacle of Dr. Swenson herself. Marina had known her in another life, having been her obstetrics and gynecology student back in medical school, before both their careers took other turns. Dr. Swenson is an intimidating person–she controls everyone around her from Marina to the natives to the other doctors to the company she works for back in the States. Ms. Patchett does a wonderful job complicating her, though, as she does many of the other characters. (It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that my favorite was Easter, the resourceful, endlessly competent, heart-meltingly endearing deaf child from a neighboring tribe, reared by Dr. Swenson and emotionally adopted by every adult he encounters.)
There is a lot of plot in this novel but it is not at the expense of deeper meaning and bigger questions. There are ethical conundrums raised here, feminist ones, layered racial complexities (Marina Singh, the daughter of a white American mother and Indian father, seems to stand out less in the Amazon than in her native Midwest). One of the aspects of this novel–which I’d venture could be enjoyed by readers who are not usually enthralled by literary fiction–that makes it so literary is the way it stops short of working out any of these problems. As no one does Marina’s work for her in the novel, no one does the reader’s. For all the vibrant detail Ms. Patchett describes, she also paints a lot of grey area. The open ends left at the end of the book are not just the moral questions she asks, but doesn’t make her characters definitively answer, either; there are also several aspects of the plot that are left to the reader’s conjecture. This is not to say that the book feels unfinished. Ms. Patchett ended the novel at the right time–it just so happens that that right time wasn’t at the end.
The not-knowing at the end is, at least for this reader, a delicious brand of frustrating. I’ve finished the book and therefore can’t keep reading it, but I can fall back into its world of wonder by daydreaming…what happened to these characters? To those? Very little of the novel is objectively believable, but I believed it enough that, if you’ve read the book, I’d love to have a cup of tea with you to discuss what you think Marina might be doing right now.