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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, 2011, * * *

Dr. Marina Singh, the 42-year old research scientist who is the heroine of State of Wonder - Ann Patchett's most far-flung yet somehow least exotic book, is in her office at a large pharmaceutical company in Minnesota when the book opens. Marina is having an unremarkable affair with Mr. Fox, the company's bland CEO, when he arrives to tell her that  her research partner, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died of a fever in a remote part of Brazil.  The letter announcing Ander's death comes from Dr. Annick Swenson, a fierce if not exactly irreproachable figure who was a medical school professor of Marina's at Johns Hopkins. Swenson was so tough that she stopped Marina's medical career in its tracks and now Swenson is holed up in a remote outpost in the Amazonian jungle, working for Marina's pharmaceutical company,  where she is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will be worth a fortune. Marina is expected to go to the jungle and get the lay of the land to find out about drug development and what happened to Anders. There are many detours on the way and not until Dr. Singh comes face to face with Dr. Swenson does this meandering novel find its focus. In books like Bel Canto and Run Ms. Patchett found amazing ways to coax unrelated elements into magically coherent narratives and make them all matter.  In this case, Dr. Swenson is far and away the book's best realized character but you have to drift past many secondary figures and tropical scenery before her presence is really felt.  It takes the toughness of Dr. Swenson, the sci-fi edge of the drug research,  and the partial awakening of the once-timid Marina to jolt State of Wonder up to the level of Ms. Patchett's usual work.  Perhaps the temptations of the Amazon are overwhelming for any writer with such a gift for animating her surroundings and the allusions to other works too great to overcome. 

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