I always forget that Ann Patchett is among my favorite authors until a read another novel and remember. Her work doesn’t stake an emphatic claim on your mind or heart from the moment you turn the first page, but rather wins you over slowly and for weeks and months after you’ve finished. At least, that’s how it happens with me. Bel Canto is my favorite of her works, and though I read it years ago, I still sometimes find myself thinking about characters and moments in the story as if I put down the book yesterday.
State of Wonder feels like that same kind of slow-burn story, full of purposeful prose, starring a large, intriguing cast of characters and providing as many questions as answers from beginning to end. (The “State of Wonder” may refer to the state Patchett leaves us in at the novel’s conclusion about what may be next.) Like Bel Canto, this novel takes us to South America, this time the Brazilian Amazon, where a pharmaceutical researcher, Marina Singh is sent to find out what happened to a colleague who is reported dead after being sent to find out the status of a long-awaited miracle fertility drug another doctor was sent to extract from the mysteries of the jungle.
The seeming simplicity of this premise belies the complicated web of relationships that get more so the deeper Marina ventures into the jungle. Patchett doesn’t necessarily untangle them all, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Marina is an interesting protagonist in so far as there are open questions about where her life is and where it is going, but she’s too pragmatic a person (she’s a scientist, after all) to dwell on the uncertainties of her own life and of life in general even in light of the discoveries, literal and figurative, that she makes along the way.
Her journey unfolds deliberately, sometimes ploddingly, but there’s comfort in her steady nature amid the unknowable recesses of the jungle, nature and science. It’s a slow read, but one with the potential to stay with you.