Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a good summer read. Dr. Marina Singh escorts us from the safe, orderly campus of Vogel, Inc, a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, to its distant, buggy outpost on an Amazonian tributary full dangers as well as wonders. It’s so dangerous, that one of Marina’s missions is to find what remains of her laboratory mate, Anders. Also, she will try to succeed where Anders failed: to report on the near-legendary Dr. Annick Swenson, who is working for Vogel on a blockbuster drug that could benefit many career-oriented women, like Dr. Singh, who is unmarried at age 42.
The story advances at a rapid pace, for the most part. Ms. Patchett raises several mysteries that we try to solve before she solves them for us. Anders? Has Dr. Swenson gone rogue? Is she more dangerous than the mosquitoes and snakes? What’s the deal with the orphan boy named Easter?
Dr. Singh confronts some of her own issues. Night terrors from antimalarial drugs open windows to her childhood and her absent father. (Why can’t we get better antimalarial meds?) The thought of meeting Dr. Swenson again, years after Singh aborted her obstetrics career during her internship under Swenson, aggravates old scars. Is Marina Singh’s current romantic relationship going anywhere? How will this rain forest adventure change Marina’s life? Will she be able and willing to return to the States?
By contrast, 73 year old Dr. Swenson has it all figured out. Her Spock-like rationality provides a good counterpoint to the emotional, moral mish-mash that tends to cloud one’s mind and lead to indecision. Without invitation or discussion, Swenson assists Dr. Singh resolve at least one of her issues. However, Swenson’s motivation seems purely pragmatic, if not selfish, with only collateral benificence.
Ms. Patchett provides a fresh look at some familiar territory, for example, motherhood versus career. Also, she raises issues of Big Pharma profit versus doing good: Produce a drug to make a fortune in the developed world, or work to save hundreds of thousands of penniless third-world lives? Then, there’s the meddling with indiginous cultures tied to their environment. Dr. Swenson criticizes herself for stitching up a machete gash to a girl’s head, “What happens to the girl whose brother cuts her after I’ve gone? Does the tribe still have faith in the man who sewed up heads before me? Has he kept up his own skills. . . .” When we intervene and show them new ways, do they forget the old ways? Indigenous societies lose their ability to thrive off of their ecosystem if the world beats a path to their doorstep for that better mousetrap, and in the process, destroys the ecosystem and its culture, making us all dependent on the compounds Big Pharma appropriates, synthesizes, and patents.
Ms. Patchett tells a good story, re-raises a few issues, and entertains us on a lazy summer day.