Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

How much responsibility should a pharmaceutical company when considering the consequences of the potential users of the drugs it is developing? That seems to be the central question and theme of Ann Pratchett’s 2011 novel, State of Wonder. Patchett has written several acclaimed and popular books including Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant. My best guess is that if you liked those well-developed novels you will also like State of Wonder. In that book, Patchett explores two settings that are largely unfamiliar to most western readers: the inner workings of a pharmaceutical company and the lifestyles of the Lakashi Amazon jungle tribe in Brazil. Part of the intrigue of this novel is that Patchett did her research at home without ever stepping foot in any jungle. Her scientific facts seem credible, as many drugs have been developed using plants from nature. Her narrative weighs the relative value of developing a culturally enhancing, but questionably ethical drug, against the likelihood that its harvesting may threaten the existence of the involved indigenous people. The plot is richly developed using the style of the poetic language that Patchett has been known for in her earlier best sellers. In an example of Patchett’s use of vivid imagery, she writes, “Hope is a horrible thing, you know. I don’t know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody keeps pulling it and pulling it.” To echo this thought, the protagonist is pulled along in the story, as if she is being controlled by an unseen hook.  I had the pleasure of participating in a recent lively library discussion of this novel which generated some of the issues in this review.

The story starts as the protagonist, Marina, receives a wrinkled blue aerogram from Annick Swenson, the doctor overseeing the jungle drug experiments. It states that their colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman, has succumbed to jungle fever. Her boss and uncommitted part-time lover, Mr. Fox, and Eckman’s wife somehow wrangle Marina to take a life-threatening trip deep into the jungle to discover the unanswered-mysteries of the story. Her exotic and gritty adventures make a compelling mystery story, as much as a scientific treatise and a debate about the values and practices of modern medicine. From the onset, as an experienced mystery genre reader, I questioned why Marina would want to risk her life and agree to take on this dangerous journey. In a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps the wrinkled blue aerogram suggests that there might be some wrinkles to this story. Once she arrives in Brazil, she must convince the gatekeeper couple, who guard the whereabouts of enigmatic Dr. Swenson, to let Marina meet with her. Marina’s marching orders from her U.S, based employer are simple: find out what happened to Dr. Eckman and determine how far along the fertility drug has been developed that Dr. Swenson has secretly been working on for several years.

Once Marina is interjected into the jungle and sees the drug experiments, she observes how closely the work is dependent on the cooperation of the Lakashi tribe. The prime directive in anthropology and Star War movies is non-interference with indigenous cultures. But how tenable is this principle when both the survival and success of the guest medical team is dependent on the cooperation of the host indigenous tribe? The medicinal drug they are testing is from the bark of a tree which also plays a part of their cultural and spiritual practices. In most stories that bring up this ethical standard, those who ascribe to it seldom can be faithful to its ideals. For example, Marina develops a deadly jungle sickness which cannot be cured by modern medical practices. But, perhaps a witch doctor can do the job for her through a type of exorcism? Should Marina deliver a baby of a Lakashi woman who needs a Caesarian delivery to save her and her baby’s life?  How ethical would it be for Marina and Swenson to send the successful trial drug information back to the pharmaceutical company if it means that the tribe will certainly be overrun with entrepreneurs who will destroy the Lakashi way of life? How much responsibility should a pharmaceutical company have to cheaply distribute a low-cost discovery that would mostly help poor cultures but not result in much profit? As the story proceeds, Marina must make these and several difficult choices about which personal and professional moral standards she values the most. Along the way, her relationships with Easter, a young member of the Lakashi tribe, and with members of the pharmaceutical team, have become as dense and tangled as the lush jungle surroundings she lives in. Does she really have a choice in whether she should sacrifice her relationship with Easter to find out what happened to Dr. Eckman? How much does Dr. Eckman’s wife, back home, need to know about what happened to him after he was reported to be murdered?

Patchett is a very gifted storyteller and she spins this yarn well, complete with sexual imagery involving killer snakes and some orgiastic native ritualistic ceremonies involving psychedelic mushrooms.There is also the novel’s most important rhetorical question to consider: What if a drug could be developed that holds the eternally sought-after secret of the fountain of youth? Even if a woman could pregnant as late as 70, should she be delivering a baby at that late stage of her life?

The author conveys the themes that the jungle is a natural habitat and that anyone who goes in to study it or its people must consider that what they might do will change many delicate balances, forever. Without providing many of the most important answers, Patchett requires readers to draw their own conclusions about several key-plot details.  It is suggested in the story, with the Lakashi women, and with Dr. Swenson, that the drug could prolong the age of pregnancy almost indefinitely. What would be the effect on society if a drug could push the fertility age for women into the sixties and seventies?The author also explores the question, “Just because a discovery is found in science, does it mean we should use it?” We do find out that Dr. Swenson has an extremely interesting off-spring after the 70-year-old asks Marina to deliver her baby. But, what, exactly, does she does deliver? The answers are intriguing and somewhat magical. The novel never settles on who made Swenson pregnant. One of the American doctors on the team, Eckman, a Lakashi man? Also, we don’t know for sure if Marina is pregnant. However, there are signs that she is. Lakashi women and Marina crave the medicinal herb that makes them pregnant but they don’t have a taste for it after they are expecting. Careful readers may see that Marina no longer craves the fertility herb at the end. However, we are not sure about who made her pregnant; there only appears to be two possibilities: Mr. Fox and Dr. Eckman. Regardless of which one did it, it seems unlikely that she will reform a relationship with either of them. Or. will she?

We do not know if Marina ever provides a truthful report to her pharmaceutical company about the results of the drug tests. She uses trickery and sends them the successful results of the malaria cure instead of the fertility drug. What will the company do when they find out she has deceived them? We also don’t know if she will continue being a medical researcher or will she consider switching to the medical practice she gave-up years ago due to her surgical error. We can, however, guess, based on her relationship with the Easter, what she will want to do with her unborn child.  I don’t think it is likely that Patchett will wish to write a sequel. I think she wrote about everything she intended to say and not say about that subject in this book. For in State of Wonder, she has created a world that is well worth the time it will take for readers to explore and Wonder about. What are Your thoughts?

 

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Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is Co-Editor of the 2017 Poetry Book, Mystic Verses by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, and the Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, VA, and writes a monthly column for the Museum website, thepoeblog.org. He has taught literature classes on Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and F.Scott Fitzgerald (thus far) at the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond. He is the organizer and Coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club, and is the co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at ellisonms2@vcu.edu, or leave a Comment at the bottom of any post.

 

 

 

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