May 10, 2013 · 7:00 PM
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State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
Dr. Marina Singh, the 42-year-old research scientist who is the heroine of “State of Wonder,” Ann Patchett’s most far-flung yet somehow least exotic book, is in her office at a large pharmaceutical company in Minnesota when the bad news arrives. Marina does unremarkable research on cholesterol. She is having an unremarkable affair with Mr. Fox, the company’s C.E.O. The bland, far-from-fantastic Mr. Fox rrives to tell her that her research partner, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died of a fever in a remote part of Brazil.
In Marina’s reaction to this terrible news, which comes on only the book’s second page, Ms. Patchett gives a quick glimpse of how crystalline and exquisite her prose can be. Marina suddenly grasps why people faced with sudden shock are often advised to sit down. “There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding,” Ms. Patchett writes, “as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.”
In another show of artfulness Ms. Patchett has embedded many small hints about her much larger novel in this miniature scene. The letter announcing Anders’s death comes from Dr. Annick Swenson, a fierce if not exactly irreproachable figure. Swenson was a medical school professor of Marina’s and was so tough that she stopped Marina’s medical career in its tracks.
The repercussions of this calamitous event in Marina’s life have never ended. Now Swenson holes up in a remote outpost in the Amazonian jungle, where she is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will be worth a fortune, one that will allow women to bear children even when they are very old. This could be, as Anders once said, “ ‘Lost Horizon’ for American ovaries.” What are the moral implications of such a discovery? Did this scientific experimentation drive Swenson mad — Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” mad or H. G. Wells’s “Island of Dr. Moreau” mad? Marina is expected to go to the jungle and get the lay of that mysterious land.