Friday, June 24, 2011

Patchett's Ode to the Jungle As Intriguing As the Amazon Itself

(Image from Indiebound)

Like the river itself, Ann Patchett's ode to the Amazon is a lush, meandering affair full of unexpected twists and intriguing surprises. Sometimes placid, sometimes alive with danger, State of Wonder mimics its exotic setting to perfection, ensuring an exciting, one-of-a-kind adventure.

The story begins with the delivery of an Aerogram from Brazil, announcing the passing of Dr. Anders Eckman. Details are sketchy, but the short letter attributes his demise to a raging fever, a malady not uncommon in the wilds of the Amazon jungle, where he was traveling on a work assignment. His lab partner, 42-year-old Marina Singh, receives the news with shock. She knew Anders' journey to South America could be dangerous, but she never expected him to perish in the wilderness, so far away from his wife and three sons in Minnesota. Shaken with grief over the death of her friend and colleague, Marina accompanies her boss (and lover) to the Eckman's home to deliver the news to his widow. Karen Eckman crumples at the news, insisting Anders can't possibly be dead. With such scant information and no body to confirm Anders' death, the widow refuses to accept the fact that he's really gone. Stricken with her own grief, Karen begs Marina for answers or, at the very least, for her husband's body.

To her surprise, Marina's boss, Mr. Fox, agrees that Marina's just the person to investigate Anders' mysterious death. He sends her to Brazil with two objectives: figure out what happened to Anders and scour the jungle for Dr. Annick Swenson, an elusive American researcher who's supposed to be developing a potent new fertility drug for Vogel, the pharmaceutical company for which they all work. Marina's not exactly the explorer type, but she is submissive and obedient and it's simply not in her nature to refuse. All her life, she's been "a very good student and a very good doctor and a very good employer and lover and friend and when someone asked her to do something she operated on the principle they had asked because it was important. She had succeeded in life because she had so rarely declined any request that was made of her" (47-48). Thus, she travels to the teeming port of Manaus, where she hopes she'll be able to quickly locate Dr. Swenson and just as quickly, return to her nice, safe lab job in Minnesota.

But this is chaotic, unpredictable Brazil, where very little proceeds in the orderly, efficient way to which Americans are accustomed. Instead, Marina's stuck in a strange land, being eaten alive by bugs while waiting around for information that's not exactly forthcoming. When she decides to take matters into her own hands, Marina's flung into a perilous Amazonian adventure that will change her life forever. The truth behind Anders' death is only the beginning of the strange, mind-boggling secrets she will uncover in the heart of the world's most intriguing rainforest. The most surprising revelations of all, however, come not from the Amazon's rare plants, animals and people, but from within the murky depths of Marina's own heart.

With vibrant characterization, meticulous plotting, and a vivid setting, State of Wonder truly does it all. It's a mystery, a meditation, a moral-twisting look at the miracles of science. Mostly, though, it's just a good, old-fashioned survival story. The tale moves at a steady pace, never plodding, always offering tantalizing glimpses of the mysteries squirming below the surface to keep things interesting. Like the jungle, it's bursting with life, death, and everything in between. I can't describe it adequately so, really, you're just going to have to read it yourself. Trust me, you won't be sorry.

(Readalikes: Hm, I can't really think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language (a few F-bombs, plus infrequent use of milder invectives), depiction of illegal drug use, some violence and a small amount of non-graphic sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of State of Wonder from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written. Thank you!

3 comments:

  1. Yep, I definitely want to read this one. I didn't realize that Manaus played a part. My parents visited Manaus more than once as we had friends who lived there. That settles it. :-)

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  2. I feel like I need to read everything Patchett has written - I seem to be missing out on all the best books!

    Thanks for being on the tour. I'm thrilled to hear that this book was so good!

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  3. Great review, Susan! You said so many things I thought while I was reading it and things I still think about afterward. The book haunted me for several days.

    It IS a hard book to describe, but I found it so compelling I couldn't put it down. I was terrified when the young boy almost died from the anaconda.

    I always thought I'd love to visit Brazil, but after reading this book, I'm not so sure . . . ;-) Patchett brought it completely to life, so vivid.

    You are such a good reviewer, girl, did you know that?!

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