Novelist Ann Patchet has a knack for taking her readers to completely new places. In 2002’s Bel Canto, she blended terrorism and opera and now — several acclaimed books and almost a decade later — Patchett’s out with a new novel about an Amazonian expedition.
State of Wonder [Available to rent from Mulligan Books: $2/week] follows medical researcher Marina Singh as she joins her former mentor in a search to discover a promising and valuable new drug in the Amazon. Patchett tells NPR’s Jacki Lyden that she spent 10 days in the Amazon to get a feel for the book’s setting.
“For the first three days, I thought it was the most extraordinarily beautiful, fascinating, all-encompass[ingly] gorgeous place I had ever been to in my life,” she says.
But the reality of life in the Amazon soon caught up with Patchett.
“It’s just so oppressive. The jungle squeezes in on you from every side and you can’t go anywhere by yourself,” she says. “You can’t take a walk unless you have a guide with you because there’s so many little, tiny things out there that can kill you.”
The Lakeshi Tribe’s ‘Cautionary Tale’
Among the things protagonist Marina Singh encounters on her voyage are poison arrows, hungry snakes and the fictional Lakeshi tribe, where the women enjoy lifelong fertility.
“This is a very isolated tribe,” Patchett says. “They’re cut off from everyone and these women have no idea that all women in the world don’t have fertility forever.”
Before the book was finished, Patchett says, women often recoiled when she told them about her fictional Lakeshi tribe. She acknowledges that it is a bit of a “horror novel,” but it’s also meant to address some women’s desire to keep their childbearing options open.
“It’s a bit of a cautionary tale,” Patchett says. “There’s so much discussion about how you can freeze your eggs, you can get a surrogate, you can have children as late as you want. And this is a story in which I say, ‘Yes, you can have children as long as you want. But, in fact, it doesn’t really look so good.'”
Into A Woman’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’
Patchett cites Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust and Henry James’ The Ambassadors as major influences, and it’s no wonder — as the story develops, Marina seems to be journeying both into the wilderness and into herself. She’s a reluctant adventurer; a smart, brave woman who, in the course of the book, loses nearly every belonging she brought with her. Patchett hopes her tale of endurance will inspire.
“She finds out so much about herself as she loses her luggage and her cell phone and her contacts with civilization and ultimately her clothes. She really finds her own strength,” Patchett says. “She’s telling us, ‘If you are thrown off a cliff and into an ocean, you’re gonna figure out how to swim.'”
It’s the kind of lesson Patchett has put to use in her own writing career, where tackling so many disparate, exotic elements in one novel can quickly become daunting.
“Every single time I’m writing a book, I get to a certain place where I think, ‘I cannot do this. I can’t pull this off,'” Patchett says. “And the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I have always pulled it off before.”
Excerpt: ‘State Of Wonder’
“What?” she said finally.
He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all he could say was, “It’s snowing.”
“I heard on the radio it was going to.” the window in the lab where she worked faced out into the hall and so she never saw the weather until lunchtime. She waited for a minute for Mr. Fox to say what he had come to say. She didn’t think he had come all the way from his office in the snow, a good ten buildings away, to give her a weather report, but he only stood there in the frame of the open door, unable either to enter the room or step out of it. “Are you all right?”
“Eckman’s dead,” he managed to say before his voice broke, and then with no more explanation he gave her the letter to show just how little about this awful fact he knew.
There were more than thirty buildings on the Vogel campus, labs and office buildings of various sizes and functions. There were labs with stations for twenty technicians and scientists to work at the same time. Others had walls and walls of mice or monkeys or dogs. This particular lab Marina had shared for seven years with Dr. Eckman. It was small enough that all Mr. Fox had to do was reach a hand towards her, and when he did she took the letter from him and sat down slowly in the gray plastic chair beside the separator. At that moment she understood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles. Anders Eckman, tall in his white lab coat, his hair a thick graying blond. Anders bringing her a cup of coffee because he’d picked one up for himself. Anders giving her the files she’d asked for, half sitting down on the edge of her desk while he went over her data on proteins. Anders father of three. Anders not yet fifty. Her eyes went to the dates — March 15th on the letter, March 18th on the postmark, and today was April 1st. Not only was he dead, he was two weeks dead. They had accepted the fact that they wouldn’t hear from him often and now she realized he had been gone so long that at times he would slip from her mind for most of a day. The obscurity of the Amazonian tributary where Dr. Swenson did her research had been repeatedly underscored to the folks back in Minnesota (Tomorrow this letter will be handed over to a child floating downriver in a dugout log, Anders had written her. I cannot call it a canoe. There never were statistics written to cover the probability of its arrival.), but still, it was in a country, it was in the world. Surely someone down there had an Internet connection. Had they never bothered to find it? “Wouldn’t she call you? There has to be some sort of global satellite—”
“She won’t use the phone, or she says it doesn’t work there.” As close as they were in this quiet room she could scarcely hear his voice.
“But for this—” she stopped herself. He didn’t know. “Where is he now?” Marina asked. She could not bring herself to say his body. Anders was not a body. Vogel was full of doctors, doctors working, doctors in their offices drinking coffee. The cabinets and storage rooms and desk drawers were full of drugs, pills of every conceivable stripe. They were a pharmaceutical company; what they didn’t have they figured out how to make. Surely if they knew where he was they could find something to do for him, and with that thought her desire for the impossible eclipsed every piece of science she had ever known. The dead were dead were dead were dead and still Marina Singh did not have to shut her eyes to see Anders Eckman eating an egg salad sandwich in the employee cafeteria as he had done with great enthusiasm every day she had known him.
“Don’t you read the reports on cholesterol?” she would ask, always willing to play the straight man.
“I write the reports on cholesterol,” Anders said, running his finger around the edge of his plate.
Mr. Fox lifted his glasses, pressed his folded handkerchief against the corners of his eyes. “Read the letter,” he said.
She did not read it aloud.
The rain has been torrential here, not unseasonable yet year after year it never ceases to surprise me. It does not change our work except to make it more time-consuming and if we have been slowed we have not been deterred. We move steadily towards the same excellent results.
But for now this business is not our primary concern. I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions. I must tell you it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr. Eckman’s mission, I assure you we are making strides. I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy. Despite any setbacks, we persevere.