When novelist Ann Patchett appeared in St. Petersburg in January (see Jan. 23 post), she commented that all her books tell essentially the same story. "My story is a group of strangers who are thrown together to make a family," she said.
Her 2011 novel State of Wonder is much more than that, but at its
core it really is a story about strangers, or virtual strangers, thrown together to make a family. The protagonist is Dr. Marina Singh, a 40-something medical researcher who works for an American pharmaceutical company. When word comes that a colleague has died in a remote region of the Amazon jungle, she is sent down both to learn the details of his death and to complete his mission.
That mission is to learn what's going on with a research team that has been working in the Amazon for years without giving more than sketchy reports about its progress. It seems that the women in a particular tribe are continuing to have babies up into their 70s. The team, led by Marina's former medical school professor Dr. Annick Swenson, now in her 70s herself, is supposed to be learning the tribe's secret and turning it into a drug that could mean millions for the company. Swenson, however, doesn't like to be bothered with reporting back to those funding her research.
Marina, however reluctant she may be to visit one of the most primitive areas in the world, wants to do her job and gather the information desired by Mr. Fox, both her boss and her lover, but she soon finds herself becoming a part of Dr. Swenson's family and, eventually, protective of the family secrets. This family includes Easter, a deaf Indian boy whom both Dr. Swenson and Marina desire to claim as her own. Even Anders Eckman, the man whose death sent Marina to Brazil, had made plans to send Easter back to the States.
Patchett carefully rations her surprises, one here, one there, another a little further along. For a novel that makes justifiable claims to be literature, State of Wonder reads like a thriller.