I started reading this book a few days ago and by page 27 I wondered if I really wanted to continue with it. The story seemed to be going nowhere, the writing struck me as ponderous and I didn’t feel engaged with the characters. I mentioned this to my mum, who had read the book before me, and she agreed that it was slow to start but assured me it got much better later on. Thanks to her encouragement I carried on reading, and right enough it wasn’t long before I was gripped.
The story centres around the life of Dr Marina Singh, a biologist working for Vogel, a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota. A letter reaches Vogel informing them that Marina’s close work colleague, Anders Eckman, has died during a work-related trip to the Brazilian jungle where he was sent to investigate the work of another Vogel employee, Dr Annick Swenson. Marina is asked to follow in his footsteps, to continue his work and to find out what happened to him. She is reluctant to go, but is persuaded by Eckman’s wife, Karen, who believes he may still be alive. Marina holds out no such hope but she is determined to do what she can to bring Karen Eckman and her children some peace of mind.
Dr Swenson’s work is so secret that her exact whereabouts in the jungle are unknown. Marina arrives in Manaus, where Dr Swenson is known to have an apartment, and is advised by the Bovenders, a young couple looking after the apartment, that the only way to meet with Dr Swenson is to hang around and wait for her to appear, which she does every month or two when she travels to the city for supplies. Dr Swenson eventually turns up and is far from pleased to find Marina there. She is curt and apparently unable to give Marina further details of Anders Eckman’s death. She makes it clear that she would much rather be left alone to continue her research without Vogel sending emissaries to disrupt her work. Marina, however, is determined to follow Dr Swenson back into the jungle and returns with her on a boat up the Amazon.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between Marina and Dr Swenson. Many years before either of them began working for Vogel, Dr Swenson was a university professor and Marina was one of her medical students in gynaecological surgery. Following a surgical procedure that went badly wrong, Marina changed career path and chose instead to go into pharmaceuticals. By some twist of fate, both she and Dr Swenson ended up working for the same employer, in very different capacities.
I thought the tension between Marina and Dr Swenson was well conveyed in the book. For Marina, the botched operation that caused her to discard surgery as a career had been a life-changing and traumatic experience. For Dr Swenson, the same surgical event (in which she had been involved alongside Marina) had apparently made no impact whatsoever. Initially, the characters struck me as flat and unengaging, but by the time I reached the end of the novel I was left with a much better understanding of their complexities.
It must be tempting, when creating a complex characters, to tell the reader too much about their likes, dislikes, habits, life experience, etc. With the characters in this book Ann Patchett has almost gone to the other extreme, and yet over the course of the whole novel her technique works well.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the Amazon environment, but it wasn’t until after I’d finished the book that I fully appreciated how well-constructed the tale was. “State of wonder” is Ann Patchett’s eighth novel, and having been inspired by her storytelling in this one I’m keen to track down the others.