Ten years after her Orange Prize-winning novel Bel Canto, Ann Patchett returns to South America with State of Wonder. Marina – a forty-something, divorced pharmacologist – is engaged in a less-than-ideal affair with her boss, Mr Fox, head of large drug company Vogel. Vogel is funding some highly secretive research on a fertility drug, led by the formidable Dr Annick Swenson in an undisclosed location in the Amazon. Swenson refuses to report on her progress, and Mr Fox wants answers. He sends Marina’s colleague, Anders, to investigate, but when news comes of Anders’ death by tropical fever, Mr Fox asks Marina to take over where Anders left off.
As she undergoes a course of antimalarial drugs in preparation for the journey, Marina endures the same recurring, drug-induced nightmare she suffered as a child: the father who abandoned her slips away again and again into a crowd of strangers. But as she journeys further into the jungle and further into herself, the prevalence of these nightmares wanes, while the more recent traumas of her past surface. As a young obstetrician, through an error of professional judgment, Marina blinded someone else’s child – an event that led her to change her career path. Then there is her failed marriage, her barely there relationship with Mr Fox and the issue she doesn’t want to have to think about: if she’s going to have kids, she’d better do it soon.
State of Wonder’s thematic concerns bear a remarkable resemblance to those in Margaret Atwood’s breakthrough 1972 novel Surfacing. Like Marina, Atwood’s unnamed protagonist is the veteran of a failed relationship and, like in State of Wonder, the destruction of a child (in Atwood’s novel, an abortion) results in emotional repression. For both women, immersion in the wilderness serves to dredge up their repressed memories, and both entertain the idea of ‘going native’ in order to escape the pain and complexities of the choices they have made, and will continue to face, in their lives. If Surfacing has been classified as a proto-feminist novel, State of Wonder reflects the difficulties of ‘choice feminism’: women today may have more choices than in the past, but that doesn’t mean the choices are easy to make.
Dr Swenson’s research focuses on the Lakashi tribe, whose ritualistic eating of bark from the nearby Martin trees not only allows them to bear children into old age, but also inoculates them against malaria. Patchett’s ethereal description of ‘the morning sun coming through the Martins at an easterly slant, the full illumination of the thin yellow trunks, the high crowns of pink flowers brushing the edges of the barely blue sky’ suggests the trees are a kind of scientific Holy Grail. And their promise of eternal fertility would mean freeing women from the constraints of their biological clocks, allowing them to postpone indefinitely the difficult choices between career and family. But the scientists’ attempts to reproduce the plants elsewhere have failed and, ever the martyr for science, the ageing Dr Swenson experiments on herself before concluding, ‘We’re fine just the way we are, Marina.’
Dr Swenson’s invitation for Marina to stay on at the research base is compelling: it would be the last of these choices she’d ever have to make. But does Marina’s retreat into the jungle represent a rejection of society, or society’s rejection of women like her and Dr Swenson: successful, intelligent, older, single, childless? Marina undertakes her Amazonian mission partly because she feels she has no excuse: with no family to speak of, there will be no one to miss her.
While State of Wonder suggests a continuing subordination of women, it does not condemn men. Dr Swenson evidently loved and respected Dr Martin Rapp, after whom the miraculous trees were named, and whose child she carried; her continuation of his research feels less sacrificial than Marina’s submission to Mr Fox’s wishes. Then there is Anders, whose devotion for his family is evident in his continued letters home.
Atwood expresses a more radical notion of feminism in Surfacing, as its protagonist is driven by social circumstances not just to the isolation of the wilderness, but to madness. State of Wonder depicts a more inclusive world than Atwood’s tale, which ultimately rejects the society of its time. This may be an indication of how far women have come since then, yet State of Wonder’s subtle mood of loneliness still doesn’t suggest a positive world.
While Surfacing is heavily literary from the get-go, the literary qualities of State of Wonder are more understated, slow to unfold, and made accessible through the foregrounding of a vivid setting and compelling plot. When I arrived at its spectacular crescendo, I was forced to take a deep breath as its many layers of meaning converged. State of Wonder isn’t perfect: some of the passages dwelling on Anders’ disappearance are a little corny and incongruous considering Marina’s otherwise emotionally detached character. But Patchett does a good job at distilling an awful lot of emotional and social concerns into what is an eminently readable, magical text.
Hannah Francis is a bookseller, freelance writer and blogger at www.culturedanimal.com.