By the author of Bel Canto, set deep in the Amazon waterways where a new fertility drug has been discovered amongst the local Lakashi tribe , and is being developed by the domineering Dr Annick Swenson.
Years pass and virtually nothing in the way of progress reports is fed back to her sponsors Vogel Pharmaceuticals who know she’s alive and that’s about it. Anders Eckman is sent to investigate but just a few weeks in is reported as having died of a fever by Swenson .
Enter one Dr Marina Singh, Anders’ ex colleague and by chance a former pupil of Swensons, before a Caesarean operation went horribly wrong and she was compelled to change medical career direction. Her task is firstly to locate Swenson , find out the more precise nature of Ander’s death and report on the drug’s progress.
She must first stop over in Manaus, and encounters Mr & Mrs Bovender who act as gatekeepers/caretakers to Swensons’ flat and are very deliberately obtuse about her whereabouts, Marina has to worm her way into their favours to find out more.
It is in Manaus that like Bel Canto, the theme of opera emerges. In Bel Canto Roxanne Coss is one of the main characters who is taken hostage along with her co performers and audience. She has help to negotiate practice time with her accompanist and is allowed to send for a batch of music from outside. For a few hours each day of the seige everyone benefits from the utter beauty of her voice. In both books the opera is treated as the epitome of human civilization , and in State of Wonder it is used effectively as a contrast to show human existence at the most basic end of the scale in the jungle.
We all liked the location, the Amazon being a place we’re unlikely to visit. The details of living conditions are a world away for the normal reader, diet wise they seem to live off peanut butter and tinned apricots, Marina has her suitcase misappropriated by the Lakashi tribe and survives on 2 smock dresses,borrowed underwear and a toothbrush. Washing is done in the murky brown river, and evenings see them besieged by plagues of insects before checking whether your sleeping hammock contains reptiles of the serpent variety.
Both the leading characters are female but are complete opposites in terms of personality. Swenson aged early 70’s , the renound professor who puts her quest for scientific truth above all other considerations . A forceful success, she manipulates those around her to achieve her own ends and appears to consider herself and the importance of her work almost beyond question; she is accountable to herself and her project.
Marina is 40 something and does her best to keep her first failed career in obstetrics forgotten. Insecure she seeks a father figure in her relationship with the chairman of Vogel Mr Fox, who is 20 years her senior, and there is some ambiguity around her feelings for Anders , who is a similar age and married with three school age boys.
Both in Bel Canto and State of Wonder Patchett creates a real sense of immediate drama, of lots happening at once and of plot mechanics that could have very different and uncertain outcomes. It is this uncertainty that creates suspense; in Canto the tension builds towards the final outcome at the end of the siege. In the jungle there are many ways the story could go : will Marina find a new love? will she find the truth about the drug, what will be Easters’ fate if she leaves with him or will she stay and take over the drug project ? And all along we suspect something sinister has happened to Anders, add to this an horrific battle with an Anoconda and having to ultimately confront her own demons when she has to deliver 2 unborn children, one alive and one dead.
Although Dr Swensons’ character was not liked the situation surrounding the drug’s development provoked a mini philosophical discussion: Vogel stand to eventually show a large return on a massive investment for the fertility drug who’s chief beneficaries would doubtless be older western women, as against the development of the malaria vaccine which would be helping other local tribes for not insignificant investment and little return.(Interestingly Patchett does not go down the route of comparing an empirical case.)
The main gripes against it by a couple of bookies were that it asked too much of the imagination but we have found a dissention of opinion a good outcome as it provokes a good discussion. Here it was deemed not very likely that a major drug development project would be allowed to continue with unsatsifactory communications (no phone in particular), also that the story began to become surreal as it was revealed that the Lakashi women had extended fertility as they nibbled bark from special Martin trees…..also that by eating certain Rapp mushrooms this allowed them to see God.
Interestingly the hostess said she enjoyed Bel Canto but that State of Wonder would be the book she “evangelised” about. Although I preferred the outcome of State of Wonder I would evangelise about Bel Canto as being just soooo extremely different to anything else I’d read.
Having said that it was a compelling read, all bookies present had completed it. It makes me not particularly want to go to the Amazon as it all sounds too hostile and inhospitable. But I love that Patchett decided that the group of scientists would have reading time, and what do they read? Charles Dickens of course from a battered set of Swensons’..But it does make me want to experience opera at least before I die ..