State of Wonder by Ann Patchett is a fictional book taking place, mostly, in Brazil’s Amazon region. I have been in that region and ever since loved reading about it, reliving my adventures and banging my head against the wall wishing to go back again and look at things with more informed eyes.
Pharmacologist Marina Singh travels from Minnesota to the Brazilian Amazon to find a lost colleague. Marina is suppose to report on the progress of a new drug which her company is sponsoring the research, but cannot get any updates.
Dr. Annick Swenson, Marina’s former mentor, has been working on her research with the Lakashi tribe whose women have healthy babies well into their 70s. When Marina shows up, Dr. Swenson who is committed to keeping the secrets of the Lakashi secret, does not extend a warm welcome to her former pupil.
State of Wonder takes its time to build up, putting ordinary people, slowly but surely, in extraordinary situations where neither they nor the reader realizes it until the setup clamps behind you both with no way back. The book has several themes running through it, but the two I found most fascinating are the effects that mentors have on their underlings and the need to be able to let go of formal education to look differently at the world around you.
I believe that access to a good mentor can make or break an individual’s career. This is especially true with doctors (I think) and especially in the United States where preventative medicine is almost unheard of and might even be discouraged (this is one of the only countries in the world where the subject is not taught in medical school). Mentors stay with people for a long time, sometimes even for the rest of their lives. Much like parents, we look up to mentors and put them on pedestals which, sometimes, they might not deserve.
While we are all immersed in our hectic daily lives, it is always important to remember that sometimes the minority might be right. I know of several instances where there is more than one right answer to any question; however, it is important for everyone to stand outside of themselves and observe the world through different colored glasses. A doctor who only auscultates to patients has to use the same skills to look at the world around and try to understand science within context.
The novel is slow to develop, but Ms. Patchett does a fabulous job introducing the reader into the psyche of the main characters and the psychology which drives them, rather than resorting to physical or emotional motivations which are much easier to understand. Each character has his or hers own demons and angels; there is no “bad guy” per se since a lot of the novel is perception of one character on another.
There is a wonderful essence of the Amazon region which resonates throughout the second half of the book. The author does a marvelous job describing the flora and fauna as well as the numerous bugs. To this day I can spend hours telling many stories about the bugs I encountered on my trip, going to sleep in a hammock only to jump out a few moments later with bugs crawling on me, getting bit by fire ants and more. It seems the stories get better, longer and more graphic each time I tell them.
The more I read, the more I liked this book. The novel has a maturity level which I cannot put my finger on, but it is a pleasure to be engrossed.