State of Wonder is a challenging book, which begins with a simple mystery to solve but ends up enmeshing the reader in a host of moral questions which resonate long after the story ends.
Patchett’s novel begins in the state of Minnesota, where researcher Marina Singh is doing useful but plodding work for a pharmaceutical company, having a secret affair with the company’s much older CEO Mr. Fox, and generally treading water and waiting for something interesting to happen to her. That comes, shockingly, in the form of a short and unsentimental telegram from Brazil, announcing the death from an unidentified fever of her close colleague and friend Anders Eckman. The married-with-kids Eckman had been sent to a research site deep in the jungle just a few months earlier, on orders from Mr. Fox to scope out the progress of a company-funded project under the direction of the brilliant but fiercely independent ethnobotanist Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson had stopped responding to company queries and was effectively unreachable, while the company’s shareholders were anxiously awaiting news of the miracle drug that would allegedly give post-menopausal women back their childbearing years, and make a fortune in the process. Eckman’s wife demands confirmation of her husband’s death and Mr. Fox wants the elusive Dr. Swenson to deliver his miracle drug, and so Marina is packed off to the heart of Brazil to get answers.
It is here where Patchett’s writing earns its keep, for the novel at this point provides the author much juicy material to play with in the form of lush and dangerous surroundings, exotic tribal customs, science with a sci-fi twist, and most importantly, the complex enigma that is Dr. Swenson herself. The fact that Marina Singh and Dr. Swenson have a history which no one else knows about provides an extra level of tension to a story already replete with anaconda attacks, cannibal encounters, biblical-style deluges and supersaturated air dense with insects and unknown bacteria. There are a host of other characters—some more finely drawn than others—in this novel, but it is the driven Dr. Swenson, who has never lost her fundamental core of humanity, and Marina, who slowly emerges from her chrysalis in the course of the story, who I thrilled to.
But where the story is especially fascinating, in my view, is where it raises fundamental ethical issues such as: should human beings be made into unwitting guinea pigs in the development of drugs for the betterment of humanity, and should drugs be developed because of their profitability or because of their value to mankind? Patchett does not propose to answer these questions for the reader, and indeed presents both sides as equitably as she can. Nonetheless, the pharmaceutical company is not let off lightly in State of Wonder but then, neither is the reader.