Ann Patchett's sixth novel, State of Wonder, feels familiar.
Like her Orange Prize winner, Bel Canto, this novel takes a set of characters, isolates them in a South American country, and charts the changes that occur when people are untethered from barriers of race, class, and expectation.
In Bel Canto, despite a heartbreaking ending, the changes are positive: the powerless gain power and show unexpected talents. The powerful reveal affinities for domestic pleasures and for matters of the heart.
In State of Wonder, characters isolated in the Brazilian Amazon, removed from civilization, become not necessarily better but more tribal, protective of their turf and secretive about their rituals -- in this case, rites of pharmaceutical drug research.
Recalling Joseph Conrad's famous "Mistah Kurtz -- he dead," State of Wonder starts with the chilling words of Mr. Fox, chief executive of Vogel Pharmaceutical: "Eckman's dead."
Anders Eckman had been sent by Fox from Vogel -- based tellingly in Eden Prairie, Minn. -- to the Amazon jungle to check up on the fertility drug research of an arrogant doctor named Swenson. The news of Eckman's death arrives as a terse note handwritten by Swenson on an Aerogram, "a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world."
Fox reveals the news to Marina Singh, Eckman's lab partner of seven years. Not just Eckman's office mate, Marina has become Fox's lover. Their affair is marked by an age difference of 20 years, as well as a vast power differential. The pair goes to deliver the unutterable news to Eckman's wife, Karen, who lives with the couple's sons on the other side of Eden Prairie. Fox delegates Marina to find Swenson and to sleuth out what happened to Eckman, whose stated cause of death is simply "a fever." She heads for Manaus, Brazil, the doorway to the Amazon.
Marina resists the trip. Swenson had been her revered teacher in medical school. She was also the attending doctor during Marina's residency 13 years before in Baltimore. Marina, unable to wait for the older doctor, performed a cesarean section that resulted in the partial blinding of a baby boy. Devastated by the mistake, Marina switched to a doctoral program in pharmacology.
"This was the cost of going to find Dr. Swenson: remembering," Patchett writes.
Swenson is not so easy to find. The alpha doctor's unlikely gatekeepers are her apartment-sitters, a pair of Australian retro-hippies employed to keep strangers from disrupting her single-minded research. Marina meets up with her former mentor at the Teatro Amazonas opera house at a performance of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Opera? This is Patchett, after all.
Patchett writes of Marina: "She was Orfeo, and there was no question that Anders was Euridice, dead from a snake bite. Marina had been sent to hell to bring him back."
When Marina finally makes it to the jungle, she encounters an indigenous tribe whose female members remain fertile well into their 60s and 70s; a deaf boy, Easter, who is more expressive than the voluble, and pedantic Swenson, who manages to make the jungle an unlikely setting for academic colloquies; a tactile tribe that uses slaps as signs of affection, and a drug trial that has taken a tributary as remote as the one off the Rio Negro, where the action is set.
This is a novel of polarities: the snow and ice of Minnesota and the heat and humidity of the Amazon, the comforts of Eden (Prairie) and the discomforts of hell. Minnesotan Marina, with an East Indian father and a white mother, proves equal to the heat and challenges of the equator.
This is also a novel of reversals of fortune. In traveling to the jungle, Marina discovers the answer to a childhood puzzle, redemption for a tragic mistake, and the biggest surprise of all: that history can be amended.
Patchett has taken a risk in making the mentor-student relationship between Marina and Swenson so central. Some sections sag beneath Swenson's orations. That said, State of Wonder is intelligent and absorbing, with passages of shimmering mystery, depth, and beauty.
Typical of Patchett's fiction, the big action and emotional payoff are withheld until the ending. And the ending is spine-tingling.