In state of wonder, her sixth and best novel, Ann Patchett steps boldly into Heart of Darkness territory, with a modern and topical--and female--Kurtz. She is Dr. Annick Swenson, an ethnobotanist who claims to have discovered the secret to endless fertility somewhere deep in the Amazon jungle. Her funder, the Vogel pharmaceutical company, wants evidence; future fortunes depend on it. But the 73-year-old Swenson is elusive, dodging phone calls and disdaining e-mail. She's gone rogue.
Four months earlier, Vogel's Anders Eckman, a cheerful bird-watching father of three, ventured into the Amazon on a mission to bring back Swenson or her data or both. Now he is dead from tropical fever. His widow Karen wants his body. The company still needs that data. It falls to Anders' lab partner, Dr. Marina Singh, to be our reluctant Marlow, making the miserable, dangerous journey to Swenson's research station amid the Lakashi tribe, whose women bear children into their 70s.
These pages have a pulsing, seductive rhythm reminiscent of that other contemporary twist on the Kurtz myth, Apocalypse Now. The drumbeat starts slow and builds into something fevered, exciting and unexpected--I counted five twists I never saw coming.
Six, if you include Marina's developing from something of a wet biscuit into a surprisingly alluring protagonist. She tends to be fearful and self-punishing, and her choice in lovers is suspect. (She goes to Brazil because her boss and secret lover Jim Fox--who's old enough to be her father and is about as exciting--pressures her into it.) But when she finally connects with her old professor Swenson at an opera house in Manaus (a scene that calls to mind the operatic themes of Patchett's 2002 best seller, Bel Canto), Marina's passivity begins to fade. The moment she steps foot onto Swenson's riverboat is when State of Wonder really takes off.
If I were an actress of a certain age--say, Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep--I'd option this book today, because Swenson is a powerful character: brilliant, decisive and utterly uninterested in social lubrication. As Marina heads farther and farther from civilization, she ends up "feeling very much the same way she always felt with Swenson, like Oliver Twist holding up his empty bowl." But this distaff Kurtz is as entertaining as she is intimidating. Her jungle home is full of astonishing objects, from exceptionally potent mushrooms to magical tree bark (is Patchett an Avatar fan?). But she scoffs at Westerners who see the jungle as an unopened medicine chest. "For the most part," she tells Marina, "the treatments here consist of poorly recorded gossip handed down throughout the ages from people who knew very little to people who know even less."
Swenson might appear heartless if it weren't for her intense bond with a native boy named Easter. Ostensibly her devoted manservant, Easter is also a surrogate child of sorts; her relation to him is as close to mothering as Swenson will ever come. Patchett returns time and again to the emotional divide between those with children and those without. (Marina admits that she knows Anders' widow "only as well as a 42-year-old woman with no children knows a 43-year-old woman with three.")