We recently made a call to Ann Patchett at her favorite spot on the globe—the handsome red brick house she shares with her husband on a tree-lined street in Nashville. The first part of our conversation is taken up with talk of dogs; Rose, Patchett’s great love and the subject of several essays, is now 15 years old.
The author admits to carrying the dog in a baby sling on walks since the terrier mix lost the use of her back legs. “It makes me feel like an insane person, but I couldn’t do the stroller,” Patchett says with a laugh. We all have our limits. (Friend and fellow writer Donna Tartt, who has an ancient paraplegic pug, has been hugely supportive, offering empathy and advice on physical therapy.)
This world of charming homes and coddled pets could not be farther from the exotic one Patchett conjures up in her latest and possibly finest novel to date, State of Wonder.
A woman’s search for her mentor in the South American jungle leads to a shocking discovery.
Set deep in the heart of the Amazonian jungle, State of Wonder tells the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company dispatched to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson. The enigmatic and elusive Swenson, who has virtually disappeared while working on a potentially valuable new drug, does not, however, want to be found; the last person sent to look for her, Marina’s research partner and friend Anders Eckman, died in the process. Hoping to find clues about Anders’ death, Marina reluctantly sets out on a fact-finding mission that will alter the course of her life.
Patchett points out that she wrote State of Wonder “much, much more quickly” than any of her five previous novels. “When I finished Run, which was a book that took me for-bloody-ever, I didn’t have an idea for a book, and that’s really rare,” she says. A conversation with friends changed all that. In 2008, she and her husband were having dinner with Edgar Meyer, the acclaimed Nashville double bass player, and his wife. Patchett and Meyer were bemoaning the fact that they were spending too much time on the road and not enough time at the desk. Patchett recalls, “Edgar said, ‘You know, I had this revelation. I put a notebook at the door to my studio, and I clock in, and I clock out. I’ve discovered that the more hours I spend trying to write, the more I write.’ ” Patchett exclaims, with feigned amazement, “And I thought, wow! What a great idea! I’ve never done that . . . so I made a pledge to write every day and finished the book about a year later.”
At the outset, Patchett knew she wanted to explore a specific kind of relationship, though she wasn’t sure what it would look like. The jungle setting she opted for may be foreign, but relationships are familiar terrain for Patchett, an expert on the intimacies between people and the language of the heart. “I wanted to write about the relationship between a teacher and a student once they had grown up, a student who did everything in her life to please the teacher and to shape herself like the teacher, but the teacher has no idea who the student is, which is a very common scenario—it was a common scenario for me as a student and for me as a teacher. So that was the central relationship and then from there . . .”
Well, from there, let’s just say the narrative takes flight—like a big, scary and strangely beautiful insect you might find in the Amazon. The intricate plot lines twist and turn as the characters encounter poison arrows, anacondas and even a tribe of cannibals. The most threatening thing Singh confronts, however, might be Swenson herself—as formidable now in her 70s as she was during Singh’s student days at Johns Hopkins. The adventure reaches a fever pitch when she learns that Swenson’s initial assignment, to develop an antimalarial drug, has led to a discovery that could have a profound effect on Western society.
South America was also the setting for Bel Canto, Patchett’s most successful novel to date, which won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the UK’s Orange Prize in 2002 and has sold more than a million copies. Asked if that continent holds a certain allure for her, Patchett explains, “Malaria may be more obvious in Africa or India, but I couldn’t figure out a way to develop a drug in those places. I thought, oh, I can’t write another book set in South America because it would be seen as cashing in on Bel Canto. Then I thought, who cares? It’s a big continent. Plus, I never actually say in Bel Canto that it’s in South America.”
Her lush descriptions of the jungle are so finely wrought, you can almost feel the dense, humid air. Patchett says her research did lead her to visit part of South America—though not the area she recreates in the novel. She had planned to go to Manaus, where Singh lands before heading into the jungle, to see friend and celebrated soprano RenÃÂ©e Fleming perform at the opera house there, but the trip fell through when Fleming’s schedule changed. Instead she watched the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo “about 300 times” to familiarize herself with the Manaus opera house where a dramatic scene from the book takes place. In the movie, as in the novel, the opera house is “the only thing that’s keeping anybody sane,” she says.
Patchett writes so convincingly about the Lakashi, the tribe being studied by Dr. Swenson and her team, that one assumes they must actually exist. (They don’t. Elsewhere, Patchett has remarked that she named the tribe after her favorite cereal.) “People ask, where are the Lakashi? How did you find them? And I’m like, are you out of your mind?” she laughs.
Though many details in the book came from her own rich imaginings, Patchett did[Fri Dec 6 12:27:59 2013] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. rely on her husband, Karl VanDevender, an internist, as well as other doctor friends, to make sure the pharmaceutical elements of the novel were scientifically accurate. “Karl and I talked about building that world . . . how can you be developing a drug and find another one in the process?” Patchett recalls. “That’s what we sit around and talk about in the evenings.”
Though the book is neither an indictment of the profit-driven drug industry nor a treatise on medical ethics, it raises profound questions about morality, life and death. Witnessing Swenson’s unorthodox approach and willingness to make extreme sacrifices in the name of science, Singh is forced to search her own heart for what truth lies there—as the reader is forced to recalibrate his or her own moral compass.
With these themes and narrative structure, comparisons to Heart of Darkness are inevitable. “It’s funny because when I wrote this book I was trying to do something modeled on The Ambassadors, my very favorite Henry James novel, which is about someone who goes to Paris to bring back the errant son of someone he works with,” Patchett says. “Somehow the lines crossed along the way, and I kept thinking, this is really seeming a lot more like Heart of Darkness than The Ambassadors. But you know, it’s one of those archetypal themes—character A is dispatched to bring back character B. . . . You’re going to find the other, but what you find is yourself.”
Of the book’s dramatic, somewhat cryptic conclusion, Patchett says, “One of my great goals in the book is to turn the reader out, to have an interactive story where you have to draw conclusions that will lead you forward. I want people to stretch.” Which is exactly what happens. This story lingers, uncoiling itself like a snake, its revelations coming days after the last page is turned. It is a journey into the heart of darkness, but one that offers a glimpse of what lies beyond.
Don't miss our video interview with Ann Patchett.Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
Caleb’s Crossing is another expertly wrought work of historical fiction from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. Set in the 1600s on Martha’s Vineyard, the novel is based on the true story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. The book’s narrator, Bethia Mayfield, is the daughter of a Calvinist preacher. Smart and curious, Bethia is thirsty for a good education—the kind that only boys get. When she meets a Wampanoag Indian named Caleb who shares her love of learning, the two strike up a secret friendship. Bethia’s father—eager to help the Wampanoag people—recognizes Caleb’s intellectual potential and steers him toward Harvard. The story of Caleb’s remarkable journey from the wilderness to the classroom is nothing less than epic thanks to Brooks’ skillful use of detail, dialogue and dramatic incident. Readers who enjoyed her best-selling novels Year of Wonders and March will relish this mesmerizing mix of fact and fiction.
Chad Harbach’s home run of a debut, The Art of Fielding, is a compelling tale about the culture of sports—and so much more. Baseball whiz Henry Skrimshander has hopes of making it to the big leagues. At Westish College, the school he attends in Michigan, he’s the star of the baseball team. But when Henry makes an error during a game, injuring his teammate, Owen, he begins having difficulties on the field, and his future suddenly looks less than bright. Meanwhile, Owen, who is also Henry’s room[Fri Dec 6 12:27:59 2013] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. mate—and gay—engages in a risky affair, while Guert Affenlight, president of the college and a resigned bachelor, falls deeply in love. Harbach deftly fleshes out multiple storylines while focusing on Henry’s plight, as he struggles to get back in the game. This compassionate, beautifully conceived novel earned Harbach well-deserved critical acclaim. It’s a book that fans of literary fiction—and baseball—will savor.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Ann Patchett, the best-selling author of the acclaimed Bel Canto and four other novels, returns with a darkly fascinating story about the nature of scientific inquiry. In State of Wonder, pharmaceutical researcher Marina Singh is tasked with finding out what happened to her co-worker, Anders Eckman, who died in the Amazon jungle after joining a research team. Contending with snakes, heat and mosquitoes, Marina connects with the field team, which is led by Annick Swenson, an ambitious gynecologist researching a tribe whose females have remarkable childbearing abilities. Annick was once Marina’s mentor, and encountering her brings back a past Marina is trying hard to escape. Giving readers access to the recondite world of drug research while exploring the impulses that motivate us all, Patchett has crafted an intriguing novel, filled with complex issues that will generate lively book club discussion.
Marina Singh is dispatched from the Vogel pharmaceutical company to Brazil to find out what happened to her colleague Anders Eckman, whose death was announced in a curt letter from Annick Swenson. Anders had been sent to check on Dr. Swenson's top-secret research project among the Lakashi tribe, whose women continue to bear children into their 60s and 70s. If a fertility drug can be derived from whatever these women are ingesting, the potential rewards are so enormous that Swenson has been pursuing her work for years with scant oversight from Vogel; the company doesn't even know exactly where she is in the Amazon. Marina, who went into pharmacology after making a disastrous mistake as an obstetrics resident under Dr. Swenson's supervision, really doesn't want to see this intimidating woman again, but she feels an obligation to her friend Anders and his grief-stricken wife. So she goes to Manaus, seeking clues to Dr. Swenson's location in the jungle. By the time the doctor turns up unexpectedly, Patchett has skillfully crafted a portrait from Marina's memories and subordinates' comments that gives Swenson the dark eminence of Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz. Engaged like Kurtz in godlike pursuits among the natives, Swenson is performing some highly unorthodox experiments, the ramifications of which have even more possibilities than Vogel imagines. Indeed, the multiple and highly dramatic developments that ensue once Marina gets to the Lakashi village might seem ridiculous, if Patchett had not created such credible characters and a dreamlike milieu in which anything seems possible. Nail-biting action scenes include a young boy's near-mortal crushing by a 15-foot anaconda, whose head Marina lops off with a machete; they're balanced by contemplative moments that give this gripping novel spiritual and metaphysical depth, right down to the final startling plot twist.
Thrilling, disturbing and moving in equal measures—even better than Patchett's breakthroughÃÂ Bel CantoÃÂ (2001).Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Marina Singh, who's given up her medical practice for the relative quiet of pharmaceutical research, finds her world upturned when she's suddenly sent to the Amazon. A field team there, working on a new drug, has been unresponsive for two years, and Marina's colleague Anders, who has gone to investigate, is reported dead. An adventurous story of science and responsibility from the ever-popular Patchett, who's being rewarded with a one-day laydown on June 7, a 300,000-copy first printing, and a 12-city tour. Buy multiples.[Page 62]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
In this superbly rendered novel, Patchett (Run) takes the reader into the primitive world of the Amazon in Brazil. Pharmacologist Marina Singh from Minnesota works for the pharmaceutical company Vogel. Her colleague Anders Eckman dies in the jungle while trying to locate Dr. Annick Swenson, who has been working on a fertility drug for Vogel by studying the Lakashi people, whose women bear children into old age. Marina's journey to the Amazon to find the uncommunicative and intimidating Dr. Swenson and to discover the details of Anders's death is fraught with poisonous snakes and poisonous memories, malarial mosquitoes and sickening losses, but her time among the Lakashi tribe is transformative. VERDICT Not a sentimental view of a primitive people, Patchett's portrayal is as wonderful as it is frightening and foreign. Patchett exhibits an extraordinary ability to bring the horrors and the wonders of the Amazon jungle to life, and her singular characters are wonderfully drawn. Readers who enjoy exotic locales will especially be interested, but all will find this story powerful and captivating. [See Prepub Alert, 11/29/10.]--Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA[Page 84]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Patchett (Bel Canto) is a master storyteller who has an entertaining habit of dropping ordinary people into extraordinary and exotic circumstances to see what they're made of. In this expansive page-turner, Marina Singh, a big pharma researcher, is sent by her married boss/lover to the deepest, darkest corner of the Amazon to investigate the death of her colleague, Anders Eckman, who had been dispatched to check on the progress of the incommunicado Dr. Annick Swenson, a rogue scientist on the cusp of developing a fertility drug that could rock the medical profession (and reap enormous profits). After arriving in Manaus, Marina travels into her own heart of darkness, finding Dr. Swenson's camp among the Lakashi, a gentle but enigmatic tribe whose women go on bearing children until the end of their lives. As Marina settles in, she goes native, losing everything she had held on to so dearly in her prescribed Midwestern life, shedding clothing, technology, old loves, and modern medicine in order to find herself. Patchett's fluid prose dissolves in the suspense of this out-there adventure, a juggernaut of a trip to the crossroads of science, ethics, and commerce that readers will hate to see end. (June)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC