The lead character in State of Wonder is Dr. Marina Singh, who works for Vogel, a pharmaceutical company. She is sent to the Amazon jungle to investigate the death of a colleague there and also determine the status of the work being done by another company doctor, Dr. Swenson, on a drug that prolongs the time of fertility for women. She finds Brazil a different world from her Minnesota home, though there are at least some points of similarity in the city of Manaus. The city is on the edge of the jungle and it barely clings to western civilization through deliberate artifices like the opera house. There, Dr. Singh finds her last point of the familiar before heading down the Rio Negro and into the jungle.
This boat ride is the start of Dr. Singh's immersion into the wild, which is full of wild life and she copes with it constantly in her time there. Insects, especially, are an omnipresence and Ms Patchett shows that with wonderful passages like this:
At dusk the insects came down in a storm: the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find.
There's no escape from the annoyances of such ubiquitous creatures just as there is no escape from the hard parts of our lives. But we can see beyond to the greater wonder, as Dr. Swenson says to Dr. Singh a few paragraphs later:
In an instant the veil of insects lifted and Marina saw nothing as she had never seen nothing before. It was as if God Himself had turned out the lights, every last one, and left them in the gaping darkness of His abandonment.
"Open your eyes, Dr Singh," Dr. Swenson said. "Look at the stars."
She did not know enough numbers to count them, and even if she did, the stars could not be separated one from the other, the whole was so much greater than the sum of its parts.
I think beholding that whole is the state of wonder. Ms Patchett fills her book with such nuggets.
I believe Ms Patchett's writing forte is her depiction of character. Hers are interesting and believable. We are drawn into their plights and ventures, even the secondary characters, and we follow their tales with relish and find they are just as interesting as the plot thread.
But there is a definite plot to State of Wonder that we are compelled to follow to the end. I don't do spoilers in reviews so I'll just say that Dr. Singh finds Dr. Swenson and discovers her fertility drug work is based on the proclivity of the local Lakashi women to conceive well into advanced age. The source of that proclivity is the bark of a local tree, which is also helpful beyond matters of female fertility. Singh discovers the fate of her colleague, Dr. Eckman, and in the process does battle with a giant anaconda and faces mortal danger from a tribe of cannibals. Her escape requires an impossible decision and great sacrifice.
While Ms Patchett does provide some basic jungle adventure, she tempers it with some insightful humor, as when Dr. Singh is mistaken for a local and must "perform" for the tourists with them. She endures a little humiliation out of respect for the indigenous people.
There are some neat plot twists and a big one towards the end that I didn't see coming, though I guess I should have. Ms Patchett handles it masterfully. It all leads to a very satisfying ending that will keep you musing over this story for a long time. But there some definite unresolved story threads that could easily plot a sequel. Of course, it may be Ms Patchett's intention to say that much in life is left unresolved. While that's true, I hope she carries this story and its characters a little further.
There is a character, Dr. Rapp, who has died by the time of the story events but whose life and actions setup the situation that begins State of Wonder. He is fondly remembered by Dr. Swenson and is held as the example of a person has achieved the wondrous state:
He was fully engaged with his life every minute that he lived it. He didn't trudge along doing what someone else told him to do. He was never a cog in the wheel. He held up his head and looked at the world around him.
Awareness without distraction may be the secret to a life well-lived and to finding the wonder in life. That wonder, being all around us, requires only a person to truly open their eyes. The idea of opening your awareness is repeated through the story, and best so in the quote most often noted in reviews:
Never be so focused on what you're looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.
To do so is to really see all that is around you and achieve that state of wonder. Ms Patchett shows us in her wonderful story that it's a good state to reach.