Full disclosure: I fucking hated Heart of Darkness, so when I read that this was sort of a female version of the story, I was wary. But State of Wonder is, fortunately, nothing like Heart of Darkness. For one thing, it’s coherent (bazinga!) and although there are thematic similarities, the story stands on its own merits. Conrad can suck it.
The story follows Marina Singh, a researcher at Vogel Pharmaceutical. For years, Vogel has been funding a research project in the Amazon, led by Singh’s former teacher, the formidable Dr. Swenson. Swenson is researching an isolated tribe (the Lakashi) with freakishly high fertility rates in order to create a new fertility drug. The only problem is that Swenson is extremely secretive, to the point where she barely communicates with Vogel about her progress and won’t even reveal the location of her research station in the jungle. When a researcher dies while visiting Swenson in the jungle, Singh is dispatched to the Amazon to find Swenson and the research station, and find out what happened to the man who died.
It takes a good chunk of the book just to find the damn researchers, but once Singh does this it only gets more exciting. In fact, every time the story was in danger of dragging, a new twist or piece of information was revealed, and I was hooked again. All the characters are good (although Marina Singh was, admittedly, my least favorite – shut up about your malaria nightmares already), especially Dr. Swenson. If she doesn’t remind you of at least one teacher from your past who intimidated the everloving crap out of you, then I envy your innocence.
Patchett’s descriptions of the Amazon are glorious and evocative, and since I’ve never been to the Amazon her portrayal could be total bullshit for all I know, but it’s exceptionally convincing either way:
“At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and the stinging, the chirping and the buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. …When it was fully dark only the misguided insects pelted themselves into the people on board while the rest chose to end their lives against the two bright, hot lights on either side of the boat. The night was filled with the relentless ping of their bodies hitting the glass.”
Also there’s a scene where two characters catch and kill a fifteen-foot-anaconda, and I can’t quote the whole passage because it’s like two whole pages, but rest assured that it is awesome and will haunt my snake-fearing dreams for months.
There are issues with the story, of course. Your belief must be firmly and securely suspended to enjoy this book as much as it should be enjoyed. It’s true: if a researcher refused to give any contact information or progress updates to the large pharmaceutical company sponsoring her research, her funding would be cut off immediately; if a researcher died on said secret location, said pharmaceutical company would launch a full investigation rather than sending one lone researcher to find the lab location and get the details; if an isolated tribe had women who could give birth into their seventies the tribe’s population would boom and they wouldn’t be isolated for long; also, mushrooms are not magic.
But this issues were surprisingly easy to ignore – to the point where I wasn’t even aware of them until I read other reviews pointing them out. In fact, considering my experience with Ann Patchett’s novels (the other one I’ve read, Bel Canto, has similar leaps in plausibility and realism), I think her books can be enjoyed much more if you think of them as taking place, not in the real world, but in an alternate universe that is similar to ours, but just different enough to allow the stories she tells to happen. Does that make sense? I don’t think this story could have taken place in the real world, but I don’t think it was supposed to. Heart of Darkness was written as a fever dream by man who had seen way too much evil to be able to properly process it (or was that Apocalypse Now? I don’t care), and State of Wonder takes place in a similarly dream-like universe that operates by its own rules, and I loved visiting it.
Verdict: four out of five stars