As I was reading this book, I remember thinking, “This story reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Then, I went to Goodreads to log the book as having been read, and there I discovered that several other people noticed the similarities to Conrad’s classic story. Perhaps Ms. Patchett intended to follow after Conrad, in a feminist, post-colonial setting along the Amazon rather than the Congo. At any rate, she did have a harder time taking her characters into the unknown. With our twenty-first century technology, we at least think we know everyone and everything and can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime.
“I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.” Ann Patchett interviewed in The Washington Post, June 17, 2011.
So, Ms. Patchett’s protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, turns out to be particularly absent-minded and tech-averse, unable to hang onto her cell phone or make it work for any length of time. Accept that plot/character device and go on.
Dr. Annick Swenson is working, in the heart of the Amazon jungle, on a fertility drug that will revolutionize the world, if it can be brought to market. The trouble is that Dr. Swenson can’t be bothered to communicate with the pharmaceutical company that is sponsoring her work and that hopes to make a fortune by selling her discovery. The company has already sent one person down to Brazil to find out what’s going on, Anders Eckman. But he’s disappeared, reported dead. Now, they want Dr. Marina Singh, a researcher who worked with Eckman, to go to Brazil, find out exactly what happened to her friend and colleague Anders Eckman, and bring back a firm timetable for the completion of research on the fertility drug.
Dr. Singh, of course, finds that getting in touch with her old professor, Dr. Swenson, is not as easy or uncomplicated as it looked to be from far away in good old Minnesota. And once she does arrive at Dr. Swenson’s camp among the Lakashi people, Marina Singh is embroiled in a web of competing interests and secrets and lies that threatens to keep her in the Amazon jungle for the rest of her life or perhaps end her life prematurely, as happened to her colleague, Dr. Eckman.
Some of the episodes and plot developments in the book certainly stretched mu credulity and my ability to suspend disbelief, but to list these rather unbelievable coincidences and character actions would be to spoil some of the “wonder” of the story. As a reader either you decide to go with it, or you put it down. I read to the end, and although I didn’t like certain aspects of the ending very much, I still found that the book gave me much to think about:
Would it be a good thing to have a drug that enabled women to continue to have children into their fifties and sixties and beyond? Why is it that women lose their fertility in their mid-forties? Would women’s lives be improved by such a drug? Would the children who resulted from such an innovation be better off or worse of than children who are conceived and raised while the parents, especially the mother, are relatively young?
Is it really important to protect “native” cultures from the influence of modern Western culture? How important? Should we withhold what we consider to be life-enhancing technology and medicine from those native peoples in the interest of protecting their way of life? Does this novel perpetuate the myth of the “noble savage” living in a sort of paradise and the intrusive white colonialists coming to despoil and exploit those indigenous peoples? Or is it a myth?
What does this book have to say about our current Western cultural habit of putting off child-bearing to farther and farther into a woman’s life span? Is this a good idea, and should we change our biology, our biological clock so to speak, to accommodate the choice to delay child-bearing, if we can? When we abort our babies and use contraception to avoid conceiving them and delay marriage, are we doing anything different from the people in the book who work to extend women’s fertility and child-bearing years into old age?
I didn’t really like the ambiguity of the ending in this novel, but I suppose it was necessary to make it a “literary” novel. I’m low-brow enough to like all of my loose ends tied and questions answered at the end of a book, but I know that’s not necessarily in vogue in literary circles.
Fans of Patchett’s other novels, of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness will probably find State of Wonder to be to their taste as well.