When I heard that the newest novel by Ann Patchett - bestselling author of the sublime, carefully wrought Bel Canto - was built around what Hollywood would call a "high-concept" plot involving a mysterious fertility drug that would allow women to give birth into their dotage, I was thrilled.
Such a novel would have to be ambitious in its treatment of ideas, I expected, since the proposition of infinite fertility seems to beg a bold exploration. The book would wish to slyly confront the social reverberations of such fertility, the morality of rich- versus poor-world overpopulation politics; it would need to touch upon the intriguing question of natural versus unnatural - on the bizarreness and, let's face it, grotesquerie of the notion of millions of women bearing children past the age of 70. It would wish to wrestle, at least a bit, with the stark ethical and even aesthetic problems of biotech.
But rather than a novel of broad sociopolitical scope, what I found in State of Wonder was the highly readable, determinedly personal tale of a pharmaceutical researcher who journeys into the Brazilian rain forest on an assignment from her employer (and boyfriend) to determine the progress of the company's top-secret drug-development project.
In the wake of another close coworker's apparent death in the jungle, Marina Singh is dispatched into, as the jacket copy puts it, "the very heart of darkness." There she's tasked with keeping tabs on Dr. Swenson, the brilliant, elusive doctor leading the project, who's also a former professor with whom she long ago had a tragic encounter. Marina's boss wants to know what the secretive Dr. Swenson is doing, and what follows is Marina's struggle to gain the doctor's confidence and learn both the details of the drug and its prospects for marketability.
The story starts up with a whodunit quality; without knowledge of the research project's identity, and with much buildup about its classified nature and deep import, we're decidedly in suspense. Much attention is given to Marina's childhood experiences with a widely used and deeply flawed malaria drug. And yet, when Marina reaches the Amazon, the mystery of the project is unveiled quite methodically; information is doled out without any showy or spectacular reveals, and the whodunit flavour disappears.
Marina learns to live in the oppressive physical conditions of the jungle, becomes deeply fond of a child the researchers have taken under their wing, and seeks to sleuth out exactly what happened to her colleague Anders - her predecessor as a pharmaceutical company observer in the camp - reported dead of a fever. As she becomes more and more entrenched in the life of the camp, her loyalties shift: Adversaries become friends, friends adversaries.
There is, in State of Wonder, some limited engagement with the big ideas implied by its high-concept underpinnings - mostly in speculative conversations between Marina and Dr. Swenson - but ultimately, the novel's trajectory and climax have little to do with those big ideas and far more to do with Marina's relationships to her own courage and to her fellow travellers.
Even the ethical problems directly raised by the story's plot are ultimately given minimal attention: While avoiding spoilers, it's fair to say that our heroine makes a choice, near the book's end, arguably to sacrifice one person for another, and while her surprising, even troubling choice clearly demands scrutiny on the page, it receives relatively little.
What's important to Patchett's story is the resolution of interpersonal problems rather than the philosophical dimensions of the issues it raises. For admirers of the subtlety and existential openness of Bel Canto, that means State of Wonder may read like a missed opportunity. Those who are bigger fans of other Patchett novels, such as The Magician's Assistant or The Patron Saint of Liars, will likely delight in Wonder, which has a page-turner quality: There's plenty to enjoy in the juiciness and vivid texture of its characters and setting.
Lydia Millet's short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Her novel Ghost Lights is to be published in the fall.
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