Most garden variety plots involving giant pharmaceutical companies fit into one loose, but predictable paradigm.
They’re run by powerful coteries of unscrupulous men, driven by the sole goal of fattening the corporate bottom line.
They’re set in impoverished locales, where strange experiments are conducted in secrecy, on groups of ignorant, unsuspecting, and illiterate people.
All in all, they’re consummately evil and inhuman.
In “State of Wonder,” Ann Patchett doesn’t repeat the cliché.
Cutting a wide arc, off the beaten track, her focus is not on the unmitigated vileness and the profit-making motive of such firms per se, but instead, on a few powerful human connections involving the employees of one such concern.
And, in so doing, she tackles the theme of greediness far more imaginatively, gently, and obliquely.
Equal parts rugged jungle adventure and science-fiction, the novel has a grand sweep that does imbue one with a sense of wonder and awe.
Dr. Annick Swenson, former head of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins, has been living in the deep forests of the Amazon, developing a wonder drug that’ll spell the end of in-vitro fertilization, donor eggs, and surrogates.
But no one, including the very people who fund her research, the Minnesota-based Vogel, knows her precise whereabouts. She’s been in absolute isolation, without access to the Internet, or the phone.
To ascertain how far along she’s in her work, pharmacologist Anders Eckman, is sent to track her down. He succumbs to a mysterious fever no sooner than he arrives.
It’s then, that his half-Indian, beautiful, and bright research partner, Marina Singh, embarks on a peril-fraught journey to find out about her friend as well as to find Dr. Swenson, her former medical school professor.
Reluctant, filled with apprehension, and racked by nightmares, Marina flies out from Minneapolis to Manaus, Brazil.
The novel gets wildly interesting with the unexpected appearance of the seductively dignified Dr. Swenson. It progresses at a brisk clip then onward.
The two follow the opaque waters of the slumberous Rio Negro, flanked by impenetrable vegetation and insect-infected bogs to the small village of a rare Indian tribe, whose women hold the secrets to keeping the female reproductive clock ticking forever.
The relation between Marina—who still reveres her teacher and finds it difficult to contradict her—and Dr. Swenson—a reserved, authoritative, stern figure, and who will not, for a moment, let go of her control of the situation, is at best, formal.
But their emotional equation takes a surprising turn. Impressed by her student’s ability to kill an anaconda with a mere machete, perform a cesarean with a pair of shoehorns and buckets, and her sheer Tarzan-esque skills, Dr. Swenson would like her to stay on in the Amazon and collaborate.
Presumably, she is attached to Marina, if not attracted.
Marina is conflicted, torn between many loyalties—allegiance to her job, to her boss and lover, and caring for her mentor. She settles for returning to her old vanilla life, which brings an excitingly unconventional mission to a humdrum finale.
The men are depicted as mostly mushy. They behave wimpishly, are incapable of enduring hardship, and fall easy prey to tropical ailments. They don’t broker shady deals. There are no hapless human guinea pigs. Dr. Swenson is her own subject.
A big idea to ponder over is, if women could bear children till the end of their lives, should they?