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Happy reading!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is Ann Patchett’s most recent offering, the gripping story of a top secret scientific breakthrough, a powerful pharmaceutical company, and a man presumed dead and lost in the jungles of the Amazon. If this combination of factors isn’t thrilling enough, add a colleague who goes searching for the missing man, an eccentric scientist, and poison-dart-wielding cannibals, and your attention ought to be grabbed and held for the duration of the story.

Anders Eckman is a scientist, sent by the pharmaceutical company for which he works to meet with Dr. Swenson, herself a scientist working in the Amazon on a project so mysterious that the details are secret from almost everyone outside of her cadre of assistants. She is funded by the pharmaceutical company, which is becoming anxious to gain some return on their investments. Eckman disappears, is reported dead due to some jungle malady, and Marina Singh, as a colleague and someone the company trusts to reach Swenson, is sent there to complete his assignment.

Eckman’s wife Karen continues to believe he isn’t dead. Without a body or any of his personal effects, she keeps hope. “Hope is a horrible thing, you know, “ she said. “I don’t know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it.”

Singh enjoyed a complex relationship with Swenson—she was Swenson’s student in medical school. When Singh locates Swenson, after no little difficulty, she becomes enmeshed in Swenson’s research, despite Swenson’s initial desire to have no “outsiders” joining her team. In the meantime, Singh learns the true reason for Swenson’s secrecy around her research, and begins to understand how Swenson’s philosophy of non-interference in the local culture and her dogged commitment to her research may explain Anders Eckman’s disappearance. As Swenson explains, “The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people.”

Singh suffers from nightmares, jungle insects, and Swenson’s demands. She gradually discovers what Swenson is researching, how it impacts the indigenous people, and the facts around Eckman’s disappearance. The revelations continue to surprise until the last page of the story.

State of Wonder is a suitable addition to Patchett’s formidable library, following Run, Bel Canto, and The Magician’s Assistant. Published in 2011 by HarperCollins, State of Wonder is available as an eBook and paperback, as well as in hardcover.

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