State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett

Hardcover, 2011

Call number





Harper (2011), Edition: 1st, 368 pages


A researcher at a pharmaceutical company, Marina Singh journeys into the heart of the Amazonian delta to check on a field team that has been silent for two years--a dangerous assignment that forces Marina to confront the ghosts of her past.

Media reviews

In her latest novel, Ann Patchett, author of the beloved Bel Canto, takes her readers down the Amazon and deep into the rain forest in a book that is part adventure story, part morality tale...This book may be on a lot of book club lists already — but with good reason...
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State of Wonder is heavy with literary parallels (to Henry James, to Greek myth), but in this respect the strongest links are to Heart of Darkness, a novel that Patchett substantially rewrites, with Conrad's male text repopulated with female characters (Swenson is this book's Kurtz). It lacks the developed emotional core of Patchett's earlier books, but it is her most mature work to date, a novel that tries to be more alive to the nerve ends of philosophical life than to the simpler machinery of character motivation.
“State of Wonder” is an engaging, consummately told tale. Patchett’s deadpan narrative style showcases a dry humor that enables her to wed, with fine effect, the world of “Avatar” or the “Odyssey” with that of corporate board meetings, R&D reports and peer review...

“State of Wonder” is an immensely touching novel, although as with much of Patchett’s work, its emotional impact is somewhat muted by her indefatigable niceness.
Nail-biting action scenes include a young boy’s near-mortal crushing by a 15-foot anaconda, whose head Marina lops off with a machete; they’re balanced by contemplative moments that give this gripping novel spiritual and metaphysical depth, right down to the final startling plot twist.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
Marina Singh works for a large drug company as a pharmacologist and is asked by her employer (and lover) Mr. Fox to go to South America to investigate the progress of scientist Dr. Annick Swenson, who is developing a drug that will extend a woman’s ability to have a baby until she is in her seventies. This is the big drug that Fox has bet his life on but Swenson is very secretive about it and has been working, at the expense of Vogel, the drug company for over ten years. Oh, did I mention that Marina’s officemate and fellow pharmacologist, Anders Eckmann, who was sent to the Brazilian jungle previously, succumbed to a fever while at Swenson’s camp and his wife would like Marina to gather the details of his death, especially since her husband’s body had been buried there? I know! A wee bit far-fetched, and so are a few other details that come out in the telling of this story, but more about that later.

The fact is I could hardly put this book down, so, yes it was compulsively readable. Who knew Patchett was such a phenomenal writer? Well, yes, I know, she has millions of fans who are well aware of her skill at the lovely turn of a phrase. So I guess what I’m saying is, “Where have I been?” Sure, I read and liked her well-known and well-received Bel Canto but then I never read another one of her books until now. Well, it’s certainly not too late to remedy that. Her writing is so fluid, so evocative, so, well, lovely.

Just the thought of Dr. Swenson gave Marina the sensation of a cold hand groping for her heart. It is fifteen years ago and she is in the lecture hall at Johns Hopkins in a seat safely on the aisle of a middle row, and there is Dr. Swenson pacing in front of the podium, talking about the cervix, the cervix, with a level of intensity that elevates to such ferocity that none of them dare look at their watches. No one in the crowd of a hundred will suggest that class is long over, class should be dismissed, there are other classes they are now in the process of missing.” (Page 11)

Yes this could have been a five star read if we just considered the writing which was just so lovely. But it’s the preposterous ideas that fly in the face of logic that I had a problem with. It wasn’t even the idea that a major drug company would keep pouring money into a scientist working in the Brazilian jungle for years on end without any oversight (which is just plain crazy!). I could certainly suspend disbelief for that. But come on, the drug company sends not just one, but two individual employees into the jungle to look for a renegade scientist?? Really? And then, when Dr. Swenson established for all to see the real work that she was doing in the jungle, I was gratified that it made so much sense but then she turns around and does something so totally out of character for the character that has been developed over the course of the book, I said to myself, “Why? Why would Patchett do that?”

It didn’t hurt that the plot twist at the end of the story was just so totally unexpected and, well redeeming I guess.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
”…{H}er desire for the impossible eclipsed every piece of science she had ever known.” (page 3)

And here, at the very beginning, the reader is presented with a central tension of the book: science and creativity, the objective and subjective, rationality, emotion, empiricism, feeling… How do we reconcile two sides of a dichotomy? Can we even do such a thing? No plot summary from me (it’ll make it sound boring!), instead, I will laud Patchett’s gorgeous writing and her lush, evocative language.

Describing the air in Brazil: ”The outside air was heavy enough to be bitten and chewed. Never had Marina’s lungs taken in so much oxygen, so much moisture. With every inhalation she felt she was introducing unseen particles of plant life into her body, tiny spores that bedded down in between her cilia and set about taking root.”

Describing the impenetrable darkness before her eyes adjust: ”In an instant the veil of insects lifted and Marina saw nothing as she had never seen nothing before. It was as if God Himself had turned out the lights, every last one, and left them in the gaping darkness of His abandonment… Beyond the spectrum of darkness she saw the bright stars scattered across the table of the night sky and felt as if she had never seen such things as stars before. She did not know enough numbers to count them, and even if she did, the stars could not be separated one from the other, the whole was so much greater than the sum of its parts. She saw the textbook of constellations, the heroes of mythology posing on fields of ink. She could see the milkiness in everything now, the way the sky was spread over with light.”

Where Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe ventures into the heart of darkness and finds brutality, Patchett’s feminist re-telling of the ancient quest myth leads to the opposite. Conrad depicts man’s ultimate power as the subjugation of one to another; Patchett sees ultimate power in the ability to bring forth life and the unstoppable turning of the circle of creation. But [State of Wonder] is far from an empty paean to the superiority of women, native tribes, and pristine environments. Patchett raises fascinating questions of right and wrong, situational ethics and moral subjectivity, and what it means to see the world in black and white. Good stuff.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
Dr. Marina Singh was safely nestled in her lab at Vogel Pharmaceuticals, when her CEO (and secret lover) announced tragic news: Her colleague, Anders Eckman, had died on assignment in the Amazon jungle. In a few short days, Marina would find herself in Brazil to resume where Anders had left off - to discover what the brilliant but elusive Dr. Annick Swenson was up to in the jungle (on Vogel's dime). Marina also had a personal mission: to find out what happened to her friend.

To complicate the story, Dr. Swenson and Marina shared a past. The elder physician was Marina's professor in medical school, and as the story progressed, we learned why Marina went from a future obstetrician to a pharmacologist. Marina hoped Dr. Swenson wouldn't remember her from their days together at Johns Hopkins, but just the presence of Dr. Swenson made Marina relive her past - and her mistakes.

State of Wonder is a delightful story of self-discovery. Marina goes from a Ph.D. in a lab to a physician in the jungle. She faced her fears and learned things that few would be able to know. Most importantly, Marina learned more about herself.

Patchett's depiction of the characters in this book was exquisite. Marina was an easy heroine to root for, and Dr. Swenson, despite her acerbic ways, grew on you. Even the minor characters shined under Patchett's pen. My favorite was Easter - a deaf boy who lived in the tribe where Dr. Swenson studied and became a surrogate son to many of the Vogel employees who came to the camp.

State of Wonder does force its readers to suspend many levels of disbelief, though. Admittedly, I had a hard time accepting some of the events that occurred in the story: Marina trampling around the jungle with only flip flops on her feet; an incredible fight with an anaconda; pregnant 70-year-old women, and psychedelic blue mushrooms and fertility-enducing tree bark that were consumed by the natives. Too much? Maybe, but the story moved me right along, and I didn't cast too much of a second glance at these hard-to-believe details.

In the end, Ann Patchett once again delighted her fans- and probably earn some new fans along the way. State of Wonder is an excellent voyage for readers who love when characters learn about themselves - and come out at the end with more trust, courage and self-happiness.

FTC Disclosure: I received an advanced reader's edition of State by Wonder through the publisher, Harper Collins, for review on my blog.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Love, I suppose, is a state of wonder. Sometimes numbing, sometimes bedazzling, sometimes painful, sometimes blissful, sometimes singular, sometimes plural, sometimes filial, sometimes paternal, and sometimes conjugal—love is a perennial challenge for a novelist. Ann Patchett obviously loves a challenge. And since a writer’s ambition ought to know no bounds, she picks up the challenge of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Dante’s Inferno, and Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. To these she adds some dilemmas of medical ethics, participant observer anthropologists, and ethnobotanists. And I’m only just scratching the surface of this rich text. Indeed there is so much here to think about and discuss and reconsider that I doubt any consensus of opinion will form on this novel for some time. That’s as it should be. But love, I think, is a central core around which the other themes swirl.

Marina Singh is a physician turned pharmacological scientist. She suffers from unresolved father love, which transfers to a kind of worship of a former professor with a powerful personality, Annick Swenson, whom Marina later must seek out deep in the Amazonian rain forest. Her task is to check on the progress of Dr Swenson’s research into an infertility drug, as well as to verify the demise of her former colleague Anders Eckman, who preceded her in a similar quest. There is something unsettling about Marina’s awe of Annick Swenson. But she is not alone. Other scientists are equally in thrall, as is an entire tribe, the Lakashi. Such adoration, however, seems to be transitive since Annick herself previously experienced it for her own former professor, and late paramour, Dr Rapp, the discoverer of the Lakashi tribe and, more importantly, the variety of pharmacological treasures which they steward. It is unsettling because such love may imply a corresponding dislike of the self. And to some extent it feels either implausible or unsavoury this late in the day.

An equally niche form of love might be found in the paternalism that underwrites the non-interventionist ethic of the participant observer anthropologist and the ethnobotanist. Dr Swenson insists on leaving the Lakashi in their natural state, despite having lived with them, on and off, for fifty years. (Her scientists have never bothered to learn the language of the Lakashi.) Yet at the same time she is secretly involved in research on a malarial vaccine which she knows would potentially lead to a population explosion in poorly developed countries were it might significantly reduce the child mortality rate. It’s a difficult dilemma, and Patchett is wise to give us no easy answer.

These are merely two of the aspects of love canvassed here. There is so much more in State of Wonder, that all I can do is urge as many of my friends as possible to read it, if only so that I’ll have someone to talk to about it. It is not a great novel, I think. Its virtue resides in its, and its author’s, ambition. Which I admit to being a bit in awe of. Long may she continue picking up the challenge. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The novel essentially begins in a research lab of Vogel, a pharmaceutical company, in Minnesota. A scientist, Dr. Anders Eckman, has been sent to the Amazon to find another scientist, Dr. Annika Swenson, who is considered a loose cannon since she has stopped communicating with the firm that employs her and pays for her research. She is supposedly working on a drug which will ensure fertility in women long after their body has started to age, to any age, as a matter of fact, by studying the women of the Lakashi tribe because those women are endlessly fertile and bear children for decades. Upon hearing of the death of Dr. Eckman, The Ceo, Mr. Fox, sends another research scientist to find out the details of his death. As Dr. Marina Singh travels to Manaus, Brazil, and the Amazon, the story evolves.
There were times when I had to suspend disbelief because the plot did not seem credible. The wife of Dr. Eckman, Karen, does not believe her husband is really dead. Marina sets out to find out where he has been buried, to recover his personal effects and to find out how far the research of Dr. Swenson has progressed. It did not ring true that a random scientist would be sent into the Amazon without the proper training and preparation to do a job that professional detectives would be better suited. She is woefully unprepared for the task she has accepted. She seems very naïve and unsophisticated for a highly educated doctor and scientist and I felt that she acclimated to very unusual, frightening situations too easily and without normal trepidation. However, the writing style was so engaging and the characters so well developed that I became invested in their plight and found it hard to put it down.
As an aside, another aspect of the story which gave me pause was the description of Minnesota. It was described a bit too idyllically when the main character "waxes poetic" for her home. Having lived there, I know that it is not a Garden of Eden. It is described by natives as having four seasons, winter, winter, winter and road repair and the state bird is the mosquito! It is a great place to live, but climate is not one of its strong points and in my memory, I don’t think of it as verdant and pastoral, rather I think of the people as being very special.
Now, back to the book, the author creates interest from the beginning and keeps you wanting to keep turning pages to discover how the story will resolve itself. I must admit I had many suspicions about the way the book would turn out but the actual ending was a total surprise. It is a mystery filled with excitement, adventure, danger, fantasy and several ethical dilemmas. The hypocrisy that sometimes exists in the world of science is exposed. The research aspect raises many questions that would create lively discussions.
Although well written, it was not my cup of "science fiction" since I prefer my dose of it to be in the realm of the possible. The many twists and turns of the plot strayed completely from that road, (i.e. a lone woman venturing out into the Amazon to rescue a co-worker from a cannibal tribe in a location she just happens to find), however, the book does raise an important question: Does the means ever justify the ends?
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LibraryThing member justmelissa
Because a plot summary is expected, I'll provide one, but plot is not the main driving factor of State of Wonder. Dr. Annick Swenson, medical doctor and ethnobotanist, is conducting drug development research in the Amazon. Mr. Fox, CEO of Vogel, the drug company sponsoring Dr. Swenson's lab is becoming increasingly concerned by Dr. Swenson's lack of communication about her research. Dr. Anders Eckman, another Vogel researcher, is sent by Mr. Fox to check on Dr. Swenson's progress. When Mr. Fox gets a letter from Dr. Swenson informing him of Dr. Eckman's death he decides to send yet another researcher to assess the situation. Dr. Marina Singh, who has significant and complicated ties to all involved parties, sets off to Brazil with a two-fold assignment: learn the details of Dr. Eckman's death and report on Dr. Swanson's research progress. The setting is as important at the characters. Brazil: oppressive humidity, innumerable bugs, deadly snakes, mysterious natives, exotic diseases, unique flora, relentless sun, opaque rivers, and claustrophobic jungles. The ultimate success of the Americans depends on their ability to adapt to and navigate in such wildly unfamiliar territory.

As with many of Ann Patchett's previous books, I had a visceral reaction to State of Wonder. The beauty is in her writing style and the mood it creates. I was drawn in and read more slowly than usual because I didn't want the book to end. I worried about Marina and her health. I rooted for her to find information to take home to comfort Dr. Eckman's widow. I rejoiced in her ability to achieve success despite her setbacks. I felt Marina's core-deep loneliness fed by the losses of her father, her role model, her career, and her marriage. And ultimately, I found peace and satisfaction knowing that while Marina was sent to the Amazon to find Eckman and Swenson, the most important person she found was herself.

The scientists in State of Wonder are challenged to think about their stance on everything from the ethics of profit-driven drug development to the wisdom of interfering with the day-to-day lives of indigenous peoples to the comparative value of life and freedom. Patchett highlights these potentially polarizing dilemmas with care and grace, not proselytizing.

For me, State of Wonder has it all: it made me think, it made me feel, and it was engrossing.
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LibraryThing member detailmuse
Knowing that women in the Amazon’s Lakashi tribe maintain fertility into old age, Minnesota-based Vogel Pharmaceuticals has funded the research of famed (and formidable) female physician Annick Swenson there for years, in hope of developing a drug that makes extended fertility available to women everywhere. So when Swenson cuts her communications with Vogel, corporate researcher Anders Eckman is dispatched to the Amazon to talk with her and determine the project’s status. And when Eckman is then reported dead under ambiguous circumstances, Marina Singh, his friend and laboratory colleague at Vogel, agrees to travel to Brazil to find out about the drug, Eckman, and Swenson.

Forty-two-year-old Marina has felt unmoored her whole life -- personally, as a bi-racial child of divorce with parents on two continents and with dark skin that feels out of place in Minnesota; and professionally, after an incident during OB-GYN training prompted her to switch from clinical medicine to laboratory pharmacology. The novel’s narration mimics Marina’s state of being -- taking time in Minnesota to decide and prepare for travel; experiencing the confused mental state that is a side effect of her antimalarial drug, Lariam; then lolling in Manaus, Brazil, waiting over weeks (and for me, weeks of intermittent reading) to be taken to Swenson’s research site deep in the jungle. And then Marina finally does board a boat and heads along the river into the Amazon.

...every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.

With that, Marina’s interest comes alive and so did mine, for the whole second half of the novel -- the wonders and dangers of deep nature and indigenous peoples; the ethics of medical research and sociological interventions; the immediate threats to life and the possibility of recovery from past traumas. For me, Bel Canto remains Patchett’s best novel. But State of Wonder compares favorably to her others -- accessible, interesting and informative; a bit incredible and tidy. And it’s prompted me to (finally) get to Joseph Conrad’s Congo in Heart of Darkness.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
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LibraryThing member debutnovelist
In State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (this is the first of her novels I’ve read) Maria Singh works for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota and the last place she wants to go is Brazil, in particular the tributary of the Amazon where her good friend and colleague Anders Eckman has just met his death. But Maria is under a double obligation – to Anders’ wife and three sons, to whom she has to relay the scant news of what happened to him, and to her boss who is responsible for sending Anders to the research outpost in the jungle to investigate why work there has stalled.

It’s already an intriguing premise, and by the time Marina is on her way a few
more layers of interest have been added. Her boss Jim Fox is also her
clandestine lover, and the woman she is to locate and interrogate is her former teacher and mentor Dr. Swenson, a woman both admired and feared by all her students and under whose tutelage Marina made a horrific medical blunder from
which her professional self-esteem has never recovered.

I loved this book so much it’s hard to dissect it and work out what makes it so good, except that I instantly felt ‘in the skin’ of the main character, who presents a calm and purposeful exterior to colleagues but reveals to the reader the sources of her frequent nightmares. These nightmares are heightened by taking an
anti-malarial drug that forces her to choose between the physical protection it
offers and her sanity. I particularly liked the episode on her flight to Manaus
where memories jostle with waking nightmares and the mundane irritations of air travel, revealing the mish-mash of fear and confusion in which she is trapped.

In Manaus she immediately falls victim to a fever which nearly kills her, but with her lover urging her on (from the safety of his office in Minnesota) she continues her journey to her personal heart of darkness. The fact that her luggage
is repeatedly lost or stolen means that she has to face her demons without even a toothbrush to connect her to civilisation.

The descriptions of the jungle and its discomforts are as vivid as anything in Poisonwood Bible, but seen entirely through the eyes of a woman who is terrified of being where she is and increasingly angry with those who have put her there.

Marina’s journey does eventually take her beyond fear and beyond anger to self-discovery and self-belief. But it’s her initial vulnerability and the author’s ability to put us insideMarina’s head that got this reader hooked.

For all I know the science in the book may be as far-fetched as one reviewer argues, but for me there wasn’t the slightest shadow of disbelief, and I was only sorry that a great read came to an end in a tidy 300 or so pages, when for me the story had a real epic quality.
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LibraryThing member bkwurm
A book to rival "Bel Canto." "State of Wonder" takes you on a journey through the Amazon where the definitions of everything we think we know are blurred, and the things about which you think you are certain can be upended in a moment. Patchett creates a world where women can have babies well into their 80s and 90s, where a tribe of cannibals are the only ones with the strength to do the right thing, and where even the dead return to life.

Reading this book made me think a lot about the idea of devotion. What things in our own lives are worthy of complete devotion? For what things might we truly sacrifice ourselves and the things that we hold most dear? Very few people live their *everyday* lives in devotion to the things for which they would give their *entire* lives. I know it isn't practical, but I did wonder what the world would be like if everybody lived and worked with the single-minded certainty and devotion we see in "State of Wonder's" Dr. Swenson.

On a more literary note, there is an obvious comparison to be made between "State of Wonder" and Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," but while it seems clear that "Heart of Darkness" may have been a strong influence on Patchett, the books are, at their core, about very different themes, and I think the two would be very complimentary if read side by side.

Another story with obvious influences in "State of Wonder"--and which is mentioned more than once in the book itself--is the Greek myth of Orpheus bringing Eurydice back from the realm of the dead. While Patchett's story has what seems like a happier ending, there is much less certainty for Marina than there is for Orpheus, and Marina's sacrifices are at least as great as those made by Orpheus.

This was a magical book which had me hooked from the first. I look forward to reading it again in the future.
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LibraryThing member Quiltinfun06
Having read most of what Ann Patchett has written, I will have to say that the only book I enjoyed was Bel Canto. Actually, each novel that comes along is less enjoyable then the one before, at least for me.

Having said that, State of Wonder, seemed more like a fantasy/science fiction experiment. Dr. Marina Singh works for a pharmaceutical company that has an enormous amount of money invested in research and development in the Amazon under a Dr. Swenson. Mr. Fox, Marina's boss and President of Vogel, sends down Anders Eckman another employee to check on the progress of this research. It appears that Anders has died leaving behind a wife and three sons. As his partner in the lab, Marina is the next logical employee to send to check on things in the Amazon.

Her journey there and her adventures while there are predictable in nature. I mean when I imagine being in an Amazon jungle; I imagine pretty much the scenarios that Marina encounters, to some point at least.

State of Wonder was a work of an overactive imagination and not so much the work of a renowned author. I think that Patchett's story was entirely too long and drawn out with a lot of useless words and pages. I plodded along just because....and not because of any intense desire to finish a compelling work.

I should have passed on State of Wonder and will definitely pass on any future novels from Ann Patchett. Perhaps she used up all her skills in Bel Canto. Sorry :(
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
After reading Bel Canto, a prize-winning novel by Ann Patchett, I decided I'd give this author one more chance. Bel Canto was a story I found snooze-worthy, although it was loved by others.
Fortunately, State of Wonder, captured my interest, so the author has now redeemed herself in my eyes.

In this book, Dr. Marina Singh is given an assignment by her boss and lover, phamaceutical research company CEO Mr. Fox, to travel to the Amazon in Brazil to investigate the state of drug research conducted by the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who seems to avoid reporting about her project for porlonged periods of time. To complicate matters, Marina learns that her work colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman did not survive a similar mission. What Marina encounters on her trip takes the reader into a fanastic cultural, anthropolical, and biological world. Truthfully, it was hard to separate the fact from the fiction in that environment so I suspended all aspects of disbelief and just let the story take over.

I recommend this novel for its interesting subject matter as I had no idea to where the story would take me. Marina, the lead character, seemed kind of depressed to me. She sort of floated with the tide and did whatever was expected of her. However, Dr. Annick Swenson, was a great character! Feisty, negative, brilliant, secretive, and decisive, she absolutely made this book.

To Ann Patchett: I'll now look for more of your works!
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LibraryThing member suetu
Ann Patchett marries commercial and literary fiction in my dream novel

A researcher enters the Amazon in search of a missing explorer and on the hunt for a miracle drug. As a life-long fan of science and adventure thrillers, I’ve read that novel any number of times. And I liked it each and every time. It’s a story that never grows old, as far as I’m concerned. However, even in my most far-fetched literary mash-up daydreams, I never thought I’d see novelist Ann Patchett entering that verdant territory!

What Patchett has created is essentially my dream novel, marrying the best of my beloved thrillers with a gorgeous and substantive literary work. In some ways, the novel feels like half of one thing and half the other due to the way the story is structured. It’s told through the eyes of Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher headquartered in Minnesota. When it is learned that her lab partner, Anders Eckman, unexpectedly died on a trip to the Brazilian jungle, both his widow and her boss (and lover) entreat Marina to follow his path into the jungle. The widow wants answers, and the boss wants the job Anders started to be finished. And that job is to find out what is going on out in the field with researcher Annick Swenson, the renowned but difficult doctor who was once Marina’s mentor.

In the first half of the novel, the action is stalled. There’s a lot of waiting for events to transpire. This allows plenty of time for Patchett to set the premise, exposit the background, and richly develop her characters—for as much as plot drives the novel, the characters’ relationships are always at the heart of the story. Around the time that both Marina and the reader have had about as much waiting as they’re going to take, the second half of the novel springs into action. And I do mean action! It’s exotic jungle adventure at its pulpiest best! As beautifully-written as it is, this part of the story is truly plot-driven. Patchett took me delightfully by surprise more than once, yet even when she caught me off guard, I could look back and see her carefully laid foundation. It’s really masterfully constructed.

A lot happens towards the end of the novel. Some may find the conclusion too neat, but for me it was perfect. Now if only John Irving would write a techno-thriller, my life would be complete!
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LibraryThing member StefanieGeeks
This book had an interesting an exotic premise: A pharma doctor goes to the Amazon and mysteriously dies while studying the work on a new fertility drug so his partner follows his footsteps to finish the job and hopefully, discover the truth behind his death. Patchett includes well-drawn characters along with an engrossing description of South American life in this language-rich novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
One might say, badly mangling Leo Tolstoy, that all jungle stories are alike, even as every one is different in its own way. Thus Ann Pachett, changing the genders around, gives us somewhat of an update on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with Marina Singh (Charles Marlow) descending into the hellish Brazilian jungle near Manaus to bring back a Dr. Annika Swenson (Mr. Kurtz ).

Marina is charged by her employer, Mr. Fox, the CEO of Vogel Pharmaceuticals, with going to Brazil and finding out if Dr. Swenson has been making any progress in developing what she promises to be an amazing new drug for the company. She has resisted all efforts to monitor her operations over the past ten years. No one is even sure exactly where she is, although Mr. Fox regularly receives invoices for equipment and supplies. Mr. Fox originally sends Anders Eckman, Marina’s office mate, out on reconnaissance, but as the book begins, they receive a letter from Dr. Swenson curtly informing them that Eckman is dead.

Marina, who is 42, used to be a gynecology student of Dr. Swenson’s back in the states. After bungling a caesarian section, Marina switched into pharmacology, and never heard of Dr. Swenson again until she got to Vogel. Marina agrees to go; she is all alone in life (although she is having an affair with the sixty-year-old Mr. Fox), and Eckman had a wife and three sons, who deserve - Marina is convinced - to know exactly what happened to him.

Much of the book describes Marina’s dedicated efforts, once in Brazil, to find Dr. Swenson, and the equally dedicated efforts to thwart her by those assigned to protect Dr. Swenson. She finally gets to the jungle laboratory, however, and discovers nothing is as unambiguous as she assumed; not the research by Dr. Swenson, not her own ethics, not her abilities, not the science she thought she knew, and not even the nature of truth.

Discussion: Patchett suggests in the book that the dominant metaphor for Marina's story is not (as I came to believe) Heart of Darkness but rather the Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice, which Marina goes to see while she is in Manaus. In this opera, Orfeo is sent to Hell to retrieve Euridice, who has died from a snake bite. Hell is heavily guarded, but Orfeo finally manages to break through the gates. As Marina watches the story unfold, she is convinced that she is Orfeo, and Eckman is Euridice: "Marina had been sent to hell to bring him back." There are certainly as many correspondences to this story as there are with Heart of Darkness. What is interesting to me is the popularity and universality of such a plot.

A great deal of the book is devoted to chronicling the hardships of surviving in the jungle, which does sound a lot like one might imagine Hell to be. There are huge anacondas and even more lethal small lanceheads; there are diseases and downpours, minatory animals and cannibalistic natives. Yet after a while, it all more or less became routine:

"Marina brushed her hand across the back of her neck and dislodged something with a hard shell. She had learned in time to brush instead of slap as slapping only served to pump the entire contents of the insect which was doubtlessly already burrowed into the skin with some entomological protuberance, straight into the bloodstream.”

Patchett’s prose is beautiful, no matter what she is describing. One sentence refers to two lovers as “balanced in the bed, two thin plates leaning against one another in a rack,” with the woman wearing the man “over her back like a blanket.”

But most of the lovely prose is devoted to more unpleasant things, culminating in a decision Marina has to make to choose between two lives, when she can only save one.

Evaluation: I really don’t know how I feel about this book. I hated "Apocalypse Now" (a movie version of Heart of Darkness which, however, takes place in the jungles of Vietnam rather than in the Congo, as does Conrad's book), and I didn’t even like the book River of Doubt, which, like this one, takes place in the Brazilian jungle. I think it is the menacing jungle I don’t like! This book has been called “thoughtful” and “touching” and “unsettling” and I would agree with all of those, but perhaps add “kind of weird” into the mix.

Also, I very much disliked most of the cast of characters, although there are a couple of them, including Easter, the young deaf boy at the jungle outpost, who I just loved.

If you don’t have an issue with jungles, Patchett is an excellent wordsmith, and there is enough here to keep a book club talking for a very, very long time.
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LibraryThing member alisonb60
Such an unusual wonderfully written story, I loved it! There were so many amazing scientific/medical ideas. It kept me gripped all the way through with wonderful descriptions and interesting people. I really recommend it and am looking for more books by Patchett.
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
This is only the second book I’ve read by Patchett (the first being [Bel Canto], which I adored). While I wasn’t quite as taken with this book, it’s clear that Patchett’s a superb storyteller. Here, the first half of the book could have been shortened, the second half is stunning, and end is too abrupt and leaves just a few too many loose ends.

Somewhere in Brazil, Dr. Annick Swenson, an irascible, elusive, and brilliant physician, is hidden away in the bush working on a fertility drug which will allow woman to continue to bear children through old age. (Why the world would need this isn’t addressed except as a puzzle to be solved, for the profits to be made, and for the occasional woman who has waited too long to have children). The company footing the bill has sent researcher Anders to track down the doctor and pin down just how the work is going, but after 3 months they receive a curt note from Swenson that Anders has died and been buried in the jungle. Anders’s office-mate, a 40-something scientist with her own past run-ins with Swenson and a current affair with her widowed boss, is asked by said boss to follow Anders’s trail and finish his assignment. Swenson doesn’t want to be found, so this proves difficult, but eventually contact is made. That’s the first half of the book, and it does drag on a bit.

But the second half, in which Marina travels inland with Swenson to the native village she’s living with and testing, is fantastic. Herein lies a plot thick with one of my main interests: how the meeting of mutually inexplicable cultures leads to misunderstandings, disasters, and, sometimes, revelations.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with the end of the story. The events themselves might make more sense if the author had taken the time to explore them as much as she did the main story, but the reader is left to reread the final few pages over and over trying to make sense, and it left a bad taste, given how the characters acted throughout the rest of the book. There is also a tiny bit of action which the careful reader will observe and understand, but its ramifications are not addressed at all, and I couldn’t tell if Patchett was leaving this as a bit of an Easter egg for the reader or just wrapped up the book too quickly to deal with it. (Sorry to be so vague, but it’s an event which would give away much too much to relate.) The reader will beg for a sequel(or even an epilogue), but I rather doubt one is planned.

Well worth the read. Patchett’s dialogue and invention of scenario are simply too wonderful to miss.
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LibraryThing member victorianist
Dr. Marina Singh, research scientist for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, is sent to Brazil to investigate the disappearance of her colleague in the Amazon and to assess the progress in the development of a ground breaking new drug.
Set deep in the Amazon jungle, this is quite likely the authour's most 'visual' novel to date with echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

The narrative flows effortlessly with Patchett's lyrical prose, is populated by some very vibrant characters and is set against a lush, exotic and slightly repulsive setting.
While the author is clearly making a statement about corporate drug companies and the transforming power of the rain forest, I still found MEGO (my eyes glazing over) for lack of new or innovative ideas. Indeed, I did not find this novel as intellectually stimulating or provocative as her other earlier books.
Or perhaps I've been reading too much sci-fi/fantasy, which are always full of new concepts and ways of seeing.
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LibraryThing member gaeta1
I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Most of the time I think that's a good thing; I feel, as long as you are giving the book your full attention and aren't merging on the interstate, you can really appreciate an author's work, especially when it comes to crafting sentences. You can also (whether fortunately or not) hear the flaws more acutely, especially when it comes to pacing, dialogue, and the author's over-reliance on pet vocabulary. "State of Wonder" turned out to be slightly disappointing to me, and I can't help wondering if I would have been better off reading the book. Or maybe it was better to hear the clank-clank-clank of elements that just weren't working. (Having a narrator who was mediocre but wasn't bad enough to shut off didn't help matters, I admit.)

I try not to scan any reviews or interviews of books that I have already decided to read, and as I had been looking forward to "State of Wonder" for months, I didn't know anything much about it. I didn't know, for example, that Patchett had auctioned off character names for charity. You could certainly hear the artificial quality, though, of the Bovenders being mentioned by their first and last names every single time they were on the stage. ".....and then the BOvenders said..." or "Barbara BOvender stood at the door..." BOvender, BOvender, BOvender. Everytime the narrator mentioned their names, it was like she was hitting a nail on the head. (The Saturns, too.) Ugh. Other name choices bothered me, as well. It was always "Mr. Fox." Yeah, it was an unequal relationship, but she WAS sleeping with him, for God's sake. Had I unwittingly strayed into a Henry James novel? AND the Lakashi themselves. I didn't know, either, that Patchett had, indeed, named the tribe after her favorite cereal (a bit of cutsie-pieness that I find objectionable) but I think I did pick up on it subconsciously, and I just couldn't take them seriously as a faithfully constructed Amazonian tribe. At least I didn't confuse them with "Snap, Crackle, and Pop", so that's something I guess.

The entire pacing of the first part of the book dragged for me; I seemed to have listened to entire CDs where nothing much happened except Marina trudging slowly through Manaus while she waited for Dr. Swenson, the researcher gone-off-the grid, to show up. Being blocked by the BOvenders at every turn, of course. Things got better when maniacal Dr Swenson finally strolled out of the jungle (I do have to say I thought the set piece at the opera was brilliant) and Marina got to the Amazon. At last.

I had other problems with the book that had nothing to do with the audio book format. Marina did more than a few things that made her seem like a bit of an idiot. The phone going astray, for example.I sympathize with Ann Patchett's dilemma. In the modern world, where family members can pick up the phone or e-mail and moan about car problems to deployed spouses in Afghanistan, it's hard to really isolate your characters sufficiently when the plot requires it. The satellite phone loss should have been handle better--it should have been broken or stolen, not packed away in checked baggage. I never really regained my respect for her, it was such a tyro's mistake. Marina also had another huge lapse of judgement at the end of the book, one that I didn't find completely believable. Some people might. It's a toss-up, for me.

Of course, the entire premise of the book--naive behind-the-desker is sent off by her company to find her lost colleague in the Amazon--is also improbable, as is the biological/ecological basis of the lost world that she encounters. I was willing to overlook these sticking points in the spirit of adventure; other readers may not be so forgiving.

There were sections of the book I really enjoyed. Marina's introduction to the jungle--her stumbling disorientation-was great. The bug-slapping, skin swelling stickiness of it all made me feel as if I were there, in the Amazon, where I never want to go. And I enjoyed the supremely self-confident and arrogant-to-the-point of obliviousness Dr Swenson, even if she was a bit of a cliche. In the end, though, the book turned on a literal bend-in-the river coincidence that I just didn't buy. The entire book came crashing down, which was a pity.

I was sorry I couldn't like this book more. I wanted to. I YEARN for big sweeping novels, with active heroines doing amazing things, and stories that grapple with big ideas. But at the end, Patchett seemed to drop all those grand themes, the ones that she always seemed a bit tentative about all along, in favor of a cheap Hollywood ending. It made me rather sad. Really.

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LibraryThing member khiemstra631
This book made the top ten fiction list for 2011 in numerous book review publications, and it was well-deserved. The book takes place in Minnesota and the Amazon rain forest. Dr. Marina Singh is sent by her employer, Vogel Pharmaceuticals, to discover the circumstances of her co-worker's death. Dr. Anders Eckmann had been sent earlier to check on Vogel's researcher Dr. Annake Swenson, who was out-of-touch and behind schedule. What follows are twists and turns of plot that are as numerous as the the turns of the Amazon itself. Well, maybe not quite that numerous but almost! It's a delightful book that many have compared with Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I would say it's a much happier book than that one, however. It does give the reader a definite feel for how life goes in the rain forest. Patchett is to be commended for a literary accomplishment.… (more)
LibraryThing member DonnerLibrary
State of Wonder is another of my final reads from 2011 that I absolutely loved. I think I devoured it in a day or maybe two which is really fast for me considering that I had other books last year that I was reading for weeks.

Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical research scientist, is sent to the Amazon to determine if any progress is being made by her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson. Another purpose for her trip is to determine how exactly her colleague, Anders Eckman, died when he was sent on the same journey to find Dr. Swenson. Dr. Singh finds the research scientists working with Dr. Swenson to be very secretive about their exact findings and must spend more time in the jungle than she had hoped earning their trust.

The language used in State of Wonder is fantastic. The descriptive passages really drew me into the story while the story is kept moving with uncertain action. The characters are interesting with their depth and hidden secrets. The circumstances of life in the jungle force past relationships to surface and forgotten skills to be put once again to the test. The contrast between the comforts of Singh's life in Minnesota and the harsh beauty she finds in Brazil highlight the complacency most of us have in our own lives. Rarely do we travel so far outside of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves in a new environment. Patchett holds a mirror up to each reader as if to say see what you could become if you expanded your reality and moved beyond the routine.

Without giving anything away, I will say there was one aspect of the ending I was not thrilled with but I loved the twist to the story that I honestly didn't see coming. Even with the one tiny aspect that I didn't think fit well, I highly recommend State of Wonder . It was a great book that thoroughly captured my attention.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
(fiction) Ann Patchett is a highly acclaimed author, and this book has received some glowing reviews, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. The Amazon setting could only be a plus for me.

A woman's boss, who is also her uncommitted lover, sends her alone to the Amazon to find out how a co-worker sent there months earlier died. That co-worker had been sent to check on another co-worker, a researcher who had been in the Amazon for years without reporting back to her boss. All of these people work for a drug company researching a possible new drug. Fertility not just for post menopausal women, but for women into their 70s – just what this world needs.

Too much of the story was implausible to me, starting with a company that would continue to pay all bills for a researcher who refuses to report to the company, not even tell the company where she is. Ending with...well, I can't tell you what, but not very believable. Too many coincidences.

Is this supposed to be a novel about ethics? On page 2, describing a lab, “others had walls of mice or monkeys or dogs” for testing and research. This doesn't bode well. Most of the characters in this group had an astounding lack of ethics, rarely if ever questioned. Perhaps that would have been workable if I had liked any of the characters. There were a couple of people that induced some level of fondness in me, but for the most part, I really didn't care what happened to any of them. For me, that is a sign of failure in a novel. I may dislike, hate, love, or admire the characters, but I have to care about them at some level. With these people, for the most part, my thoughts were, “okay, you are going to do something stupid once again. Who cares?”

The ending...let's just say I hated it.

I did like some of the descriptions of life in the jungle, and the writing itself was as good as it can get while still not drawing me into the story, thus three stars. I know that many others will love this novel but I was disappointed.
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LibraryThing member dianaleez
Ann Patchett, readers in tow, ventures into the Amazon jungle in her latest offering, `State of Wonder.'

Briefly, it's the story of Dr. Marina Singh, who is dispatched into the jungle to find out what happened to Anders Eckman, her former officemate. He died while checking on the status of a drug research station for their pharmaceutical giant employer, and his grieving widow begs Marina to find out the details of his death. Venturing into the Amazon is literally venturing into her own past as Marina must seek out her former teacher, Annick Swenson, who heads the research team and was in part responsible for an unfortunate incident in Marina's past.

Patchett's novels are multilayered, and `State of Wonder' is no exception. It is, if anything, too loaded with nuance and portent. As Marina descends into her own heart of darkness, facing her own past and the costly error of her residency, she must also grapple with the complex ethical issues of drug research, love, and responsibility.

`State of Wonder' is a thought-provoking absorbing novel, but its complex theme resulted, for this reader at least, in a diminution of emotional intensity. Nevertheless, Patchett continues to amaze and delight.
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LibraryThing member akreese
State of Wonder drew me in slowly. I didn’t even realize that I was invested in the story until it was too late to do anything but sit back and enjoy the ride.

The characters, especially those in the supporting roles, are some of the most vivid and well developed that I’ve read in recent literature. Marina is the main character, but she acts as a window through which we see the other characters of the book. The true star of the story is Dr. Annick Swenson, who is a real piece of work. You get to see her first through Marina’s eyes as she remembers Dr. Swenson as an instructor in medical school. Marina’s memories do not give a favorable impression, but then Marina’s memories are colored with her own tragic experiences.

In fact, the reader gets many glimpses of how Dr. Swenson’s personality could be off-putting. These include: the all-too brief letter she sends about Anders’ death, her avoidance of anyone from the drug company, the many hoops that she makes visitors jump through in order to get access to her. With all of those negatives I was prepared to absolutely hate Dr. Swenson. But Ann Patchett doesn’t let the reader off the hook that easily. Once I started to read the scenes in which Dr. Swenson played a major role, I could see how she was able to build such loyalty in her fellow workers in South America. She has a demanding presence and a critical eye, and those around her are determined to live up to her standards.

Dr. Swenson was such a strange mix of hubris, intelligence, forcefulness and arrogance. She demanded respect and yet there were certain aspects of her morals and ethics that were questionable. She fascinated me, but I didn’t hate her and that was quite a surprise.

This book is a treasure trove for a book club discussion. There are many aspects of morality and ethics to be discussed, especially in regards to gray areas of what seems right but might actually be unethical. Some of those topics include: extreme fertility treatments, drug studies, exploitation of native populations, lying for a good cause, and late age pregnancy. I won’t go into any more detail than that in order to avoid spoilers.

When I set down State of Wonder I knew that I had just read a well-crafted novel. It didn’t fill me with joy – it wasn’t a hugely uplifting story. But when I finished it my mind was full of thoughts and ideas all swirling around, and they percolated in my head for days afterward.

I highly recommend State of Wonder to anyone who loves good literature.
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LibraryThing member kebets
Let me tell you things come together in unexpected ways sometimes. This is one of the books that I downloaded onto my Nook to read on our Mexican vacation. What a great beach read it was!

This is the story of an unexpected journeys
- from the cold of Minnesota to the wilds of Brazil
- from the known sterile world of a pharmaceutical lab to the completely unpredictable world of 70 year old pregnant Brazilian women who gnaw on trees.
-from the ordered life of Marina Singh failed gynecologist and clandestine lover of the company CEO to Dr. Annick Swenson the Amazonian queen of research

So - as I sat on the beach on my own journey I read about Marina and Dr. Swenson. Marina, afraid of rocking the boat in so many ways and Swenson who not only will drive the boat, she will command anyone who touches the boat and perhaps burn them at the stake if they cause any problems. There could not be two more dissimilar characters.
As the paths of these two women intertwine - both in Marina's schooling and later at the research facility and finally in Brazil they take on one another's qualities...much to their dismay.

The story begins with a letter from Brazil announcing the death of Marina's research partner who has gone to Brazil to find out why it is taking Dr. Swenson so long to create a fertility drug from a tribe of women who still bear children in their 70s. Marina is charged to go to Brazil to find Anders body and return it to his wife as well as check on the research.

As you would expect things don't go as they are expected to...there are cannibals, a hippie couple who hold unexpected information, a deaf child named Easter, and a jungle so full of insects that...well it gave me the creeps.

As Marina makes her way to the tribe - she is greeted with natives holding torches in the so happened that I read that part the day that we took an hour boat ride to a darkened island where the torches on the beach welcomed us...there were no critters, but it was an interesting moment.

I enjoyed the way this story spun itself slowly out. There were so many hidden treasures and half truths that worked their way into the tale. This was a good one.
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LibraryThing member punxsygal
After finishing the book there really isn't anything I can say that I really liked about it. While there was an attempt to make mysterious, mad scientists out of the characters, I really did not care for any of them. Lots of descriptions of vegetation, bugs and snakes. I'm just sitting here wondering why I bothered reading the whole thing.… (more)




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