State of Wonder / Ann Patchett

In this novel, Marina Singh is a research scientist working for a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company.   A physician, Marina had originally specialized in obstetrics, but after causing injury to a baby she delivered, she changed focus and left patient care behind. Her former mentor and residency teacher, Dr. Annick Swenson, has also left the field to work in the Amazon on a potential fertility drug for older women. Swenson has discovered that women who chew the bark from a particular tree in a remote jungle community are able to get pregnant throughout their lives. The same drug company that employs Marina is funding Swenson’s research. When a fellow researcher dies of a fever after being sent to investigate Dr. Swenson’s progress, Marina is deputized to fly to South America and take his place. The decision to send her is made by the drug company’s chief executive, Mr. Fox. He also just happens to be Marina’s lover (although oddly, she calls him Mr. Fox at all times, even when they are alone together). By this point of time, the book had begun to feel a bit far-fetched to me. The bulk of the story takes place in the Amazon, an exotic location that Patchett attempts to describe in vivid, colorful detail. But she never quite succeeds in bringing alive her lush jungle locale. The natives in the book seem more like caricatures, mere background ornaments that the reader only gets brief glimpses of. The story itself, once Marina arrives in South America, is intriguing enough to keep the pages flying. There are snakes, a rogue group of scientists who have discovered a clandestine cure for malaria, and hallucinogenic mushrooms as well. But the biggest secret Marina discovers is that Dr. Swenson, at age seventy, is pregnant after having taken the bark extract to become fertile again. Throw in a neighboring tribe of cannibals and you have got yourself quite the story. While I found Marina an interesting and likeable character, like the story itself, her actions throughout the book strained belief. This is by no means a poorly written novel, and I can see how some might be fascinated by its Heart of Darkness jungle allure. But for me, the story did not ring true, nor did it convey a true sense of what it would be like to live in such a remote setting.

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