“All Marina could see was green. The sky, the water, the bark of the trees: everything that wasn’t green became green.” – State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Marina Singh, a physician, is employed by a pharmaceutical research firm in Minnesota. This same firm has dispatched another scientist, Annick Swenson, to the Amazon to investigate a drug with tremendous, if somewhat mysterious, potential. Dr. Swenson disliked cell phones and was in general a poor communicator. There came a point where she had not been heard from for a disturbingly long time. Anders Eckman, Marina’s research partner, has been sent to try and find her.
When Marina and her boss Mr. Fox finally do hear from Anneck Swenson, it is to impart some deeply distressing news.
Here’s how State of Wonder opens:
The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.
This missive from Dr. Swenson is curiously brisk and elliptical. Its chief purpose is to inform Mr. Fox of the demise of Anders Eckman. Due to the exigencies of the situation, Dr. Swenson informs him, the decision was made to bury Eckman in Brazil.
For any number of reasons, this minimal communique just won’t do. For one thing, Anders Eckman has a wife and three sons. In the midst of her terrible grief, Karen Eckman is demanding answers. The role of getting those answers falls to Marina, who must now herself make the arduous journey to Brazil.
I don’t want to give away any more of the plot beyond this point. This is a highly original novel, unlike any I’ve read in a long time, filled with vivid descriptive writing. Here is Marina in Manaus, first stop on the way into the jungle:
She went to the market hall at six in the morning when the world was out to accomplish as much as was humanly possible before the truly devastating heat began. The smell of so many dead fish and chickens and sides of beef tilting precariously towards rot in the still air made her hold a crumpled T-shirt over the lower half of her face but she took the time to stop and look at the herbs and barks at the medicine table, the snake heads floating in what she sincerely hoped was alcohol. A black vulture the size of a turkey walked down the aisles like all the other shoppers, looking for whatever fish heads and entrails were to be had underneath the tables.
There’s a wonderful scene in Teatro Amazonas, Manaus’s opera house. Marina goes there in the company of an eccentric (and often supremely exasperating) couple, Barbara and Jackie Bovender. The Bovenders are tasked with protecting Dr. Swenson in absentia and with concealing her whereabouts; they are succeeding only too well in this endeavor. At any rate, Marina enjoys the music, especially the Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos. Since arriving in Manaus, Marina had been in a state of heightened agitation. She derives solace from the otherworldly strangeness of this music: “It took eight cellos and a human voice to quiet her mind.”
At the dawning of the new milennium, I read a book that seemed to have been written just for me. The story of an opera singer* who finds herself taken hostage in a nameless South American country, the narrative is permeated from beginning to end with the love of great music and with a belief in the power of that music to transform the human heart. The novel was called was called Bel Canto; its author was Ann Patchett.
For ten years, I’ve been waiting for yet another work of fiction that could equal that one in scope, in imaginative reach, in the grace of its prose and the memorable qualities of its characters. I have finally found that work; it is State of Wonder.
*Renowned soprano Renee Fleming served as the model for singer Roxanne Coss in Bel Canto. In the course of a series of conversations, Patchett and Fleming became friends. Last month, Renee Fleming wed lawyer Tim Jessell. They met through a blind date set up by Ann Patchett.
Here is Renee Fleming singing “Song To the Moon,” from Rusalka by Antonin Dvorak: