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"State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett - a review

Wonder Ann Patchett’s rich new novel poses many intriguing ideas about how we live, but perhaps the most thought-provoking question is “whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived.” An interesting dilemma, especially in State of Wonder, a modern-day Heart of Darkness that trades the Congo for the Amazon and ivory hunters for pharmaceutical researchers but probes some of the same issues of imperialism, guilt and responsibility, of power and its use and abuse. Like Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Patchett’s protagonist, scientist Marina Singh, sets off on a journey that reveals the darker sides of human nature, her own included. The difference? Patchett, ever an optimist, offers shadings of light as well.

If these weighty concepts sound too much like schoolwork, be assured that reading Patchett is anything but a slog. Author of the devastating memoir Truth & Beauty and five previous novels, including the beloved Bel Canto and the underappreciated Run, Patchett writes with swiftness and clarity. And her stalking of Big Literary Game — nobody rewrites Conrad without understanding that’s what she’s doing — hasn’t hindered her ability to explore the finer emotional detail of human relationships.

The novel opens in cold, pristine Minnesota, an almost sterile environment compared to the riot of garish color, searing heat and potential danger of exotic South America. Marina’s boss Mr. Fox — that’s how she thinks of him, although he’s her lover as well as her CEO — comes to her office to announce that her colleague Anders Eckman, who had been sent to the Amazon to keep tabs on a scientist researching a miracle drug for the company, is dead. Oddly, his demise is announced via airmail. The scientist he’d been sent to monitor, Dr. Annick Swenson, “won’t use the phone, or she says it doesn’t work there.” There’s no Internet connection, either. And so Anders’ death is passed along on stationery puckered by rain, and Marina and Mr. Fox must break the news to his wife and young sons.

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