When I decided I wanted to read this book, I didn’t know what to expect: I was unfamiliar with the author and her work and didn’t bother to read any reviews. My decision certainly had something to do with the title, and the synopsis sounded intriguing enough: a research scientist travels to the Amazon jungle to search for her former mentor and to learn about the circumstances of her colleague’s death. Maybe I was fooled by the title, even if a little bit, hoping for great adventures, similar to those of Indiana Jones’ or Lara Croft’s. (Please don’t give me that funny look. I just love adventures and action super-heroes.) This story, however, is different, with a much stronger appeal. Apart from the fact that most of it is set in the Amazon jungle, far from modern conveniences and where some of us go only as tourists, the book puts a spotlight on medical dilemmas and ethical issues of scientific research, rekindling a never-ending debate about whether science should mess with nature, and where and when it should draw a line. That in itself is food for thought aplenty.
But the human interest part of the book is much more fascinating. Marina Singh, the protagonist, is a scientist for a pharmaceutical company that is developing a new drug. She is an ordinary person with her own emotional baggage, the company’s president Mr. Fox for a lover, and an unfortunate incident in her distant past that radically changed the course of her career. She certainly doesn’t look like a super-hero on a treasure hunt, but in her own way, she is. Marina stoically endures hardship associated with the tropics and emotional upheavals that life throws at her in abundance. When, after a period of uncertainty, Marina finally meets with her former mentor, Dr. Swenson, and arrives at her destination in the jungle, she faces challenges and nightmares she couldn’t even imagine possible in her previous, comfortable and civilized, life. Her courage and determination are put to the test and stretched to the limit, and her core beliefs undergo a major overhaul. At the same time, in the jungle, among people of primitive culture, her existence stripped to bare basics and her soul of all pretense, she finds redemption and deliverance both from her past and the nightmares that have been haunting her since she was a little girl. But most importantly, through loss and sacrifice, Marina experiences a fundamental shift toward greater love, compassion and forgiveness.
State of Wonder struck a chord with me on a deeper level than any “great adventure” would. Will I read more books by Ann Patchett? You bet.