State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

(2012 selection)

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In her most ambitious novel to date, Ann Patchett takes readers to the lush, alluring, and transformative Amazonian rain forest. The story of one woman's journey into a modern heart of darkness, State of Wonder measures the bounds of friendship, and explores both deeply personal and wider ethical questions about the choices we make in our lives.

Marina Singh is a forty-two-year-old doctor who, for reasons that come to light in the course of the novel, eschewed private practice for the safer cocoon of drug research. Working for a pharmaceutical giant in her native Minnesota, Marina has compartmentalized her life with a dispassionate sense of order. Her only small act of indiscretion, a quiet love affair with the starchy Mr. Fox, her company's CEO, is itself the picture of propriety. Marina's carefully constructed world is shaken, however, when her officemate and friend, Anders Eckman, is reported dead from a fever, contracted while investigating the company's field work in the jungles of Brazil.

In a request freighted with emotional complexity, Mr. Fox asks Marina to travel to Manaus to ascertain the details of Anders's death, and also to report on the progress of the jungle research being conducted by the brilliant, imperious Dr. Annick Swenson, who has been withholding pertinent information about the project. Marina is reluctant to go, not only because of the danger and discomfort of such a journey, but also because she has a complicated past connection with Dr. Swenson, once her much admired, if feared teacher in medical school. Still, she goes, both out of sense of duty to Mr. Fox and the company, and because she feels she needs to find an explanation for Anders's unnecessary death for his wife and young sons.

Suffering the effects of an anti-malaria drug, Marina begins to have wild, frightening dreams that churn up unresolved childhood fears involving visits with her father in the crush of his native India. The dreams continue once she is in Manaus, where she tries to track down Dr. Swenson. Connected at last, Marina defies the rebuffs of the older woman-who exhibits no memory of any problematical past association with her erstwhile student-and travels upriver with the doctor to the camp where the research is being conducted. Accompanying them is a young, deaf, native boy-Easter-who wins Marina's heart, as he apparently won Anders's before her. Even the prickly Dr. Swenson is not immune to the intelligent boy's considerable charms.

The research camp that Dr. Swenson has built among the Lakashi Indians proves a place both fearsome and wonderful, populated by exotic flora and fauna, infested with worrisome insects, and weighted by a canopy of oppressive heat and humidity. The carefully guarded drug study, Marina comes to learn, involves the bark of an indigenous tree that seems to extend the fertility of the Lakashi women, allowing them to conceive into late middle age. It could prove a scientific breakthrough with virtually unlimited profit potential for Marina's firm. But Marina discovers some startling facts about Dr. Swenson's research, and is faced with peril and impossible choices.

With lush, evocative prose, Ann Patchett vividly brings to life the dark, haunting, alien world of the jungle, a marked counterpoint to the spare, icy landscape that has shaped Marina's cosseted perceptions. Patchett has wrapped a profound and moving exploration of large themes-courage, moral choices, the clash of cultures, friendship, love-around a gripping adventure story. STATE OF WONDER is a career-defining book for the writer the New York Times has called "generous, fearless, and startlingly wise."

Courtesy of HarperCollins

Funding for "One Book, Everybody Reads" is made possible by Friends of the Wilmette Public Library.

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