State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

Book 44

The other day at the library’s Used Book Store, a lady came in all excited to find us and ended up selecting two books:  Saturday, my favorite of all the Ian McEwans and State of Wonder, which I was halfway through.  I told her that she had totally scored.  She asked about State of Wonder, thinking there was a supernatural element.  I hadn’t thought so.  More like science and hallucinogens.  I told her that the reviews seemed to think it was Heart of Darkness for girls.

It also reminded me of an old Sean Connery movie – name escapes me – where he was in the jungle searching for a cure for cancer.

Dr. Singh is a divorced pharmacologist working in research on statin drugs.  The story opens with her CEO (and lover) telling her that her lab partner has died on an expedition to the Amazon.  He was there to check on the progress of a Dr. Swenson, who had been working on a fertility drug for the firm and gone off grid many months ago.  Dr. Swenson had been a teacher of Dr. Singh many years ago in obstetrics.  So you see where this is going.

Dr. Singh heads to the Amazon at the behest of the widow, who is holding out some hope.

There are a whole bunch of layers to this story and a blog post isn’t going to cut it:

  1. The fish out of water thing
  2. Confronting the career-changing drama
  3. Is Dr. Swenson right or is she crazy
  4. Ethics of experimenting o the natives
  5. What the hell happened to that guy, anyway?
  6. What does the boyfriend/boss really want?

But the most totally awesome thing is this – SPOILER:

In the course of searching for the fertility drug, Dr. Swenson finds a correlation between women eating this certain bark (infested with the poop of a certain moth), fertility through their 70s and immunity to malaria.  The big reveal SERIOUSLY GOING TO SPOIL THE ENTIRE STORY is that the fertility research is complete and the scientists are stalling so the corporate behemoth that thinks it is funding the biggest money-making thing since Viagra will continue to fund the group while they develop a vaccine for a disease that can save a whole lot of lives in the third world.

There is an interesting commentary regarding fertility treatment in general.  While I think most of us agree that having a baby at age 70 is not the best idea – both for the strain on the human body and the fact that one isn’t likely to live long enough to raise a child through to adulthood – the question of “how long is too long to wait?” is pretty compelling.  Because I have never wanted children, I have never struggled with the question.  But I have seen plenty of women that do.  I remember, when I was 23, talking to a vendor that had recently had triplets.  She was older than my mother.  But such things aren’t rare.

I don’t love the way everything in this book went down.  But I will tell you what I told the lady at the book store:  Patchett gets better with every book, which is saying a whole lot.  Some novelists get lazy (or sloppy, or run out of ideas or I don’t know what) after a success like Bel Canto.  Not a problem here.

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