State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Narrator: Hope Davis

Publisher: Harper Audio (2011)

Length: 12 hours 25 minutes

Author’s Page

Set mostly in the Amazon jungle of Brazil, this tale follows Dr. Marina Singh as she searches for answers. The pharmaceutical company she works for is concerned about the secretive research Dr. Annick Swenson is involved in. Just recently, another colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died while searching for the same answers. Now Marina is dually tasked in discovering the status of Swenson’s research and digging up the details of Eckman’s death.

Where to start with this book? It was intense and kept me riveted to my audiobook player. Let’s start with Dr. Swenson. She once worked at a hospital and taught interns some of the finer points about birthing babies. Marina was once such a student but a mistake changed the trajectory of her career and she ended up in pharmaceuticals. Throughout most of this story, she has vivid dreams where memory and fears collide and some of those concern Dr. Swenson and her opinion on Marina’s worthiness. Dr. Swenson is a terribly blunt person who has high standards for everyone, including herself. This makes her rather abrasive. Yet the fact that she’s often logical and correct makes her a fascinating character. Nearly all her actions and words are calculated without giving a fig for people’s feelings.

Then we have Marina. She starts off a bit timid. She’s in her 40s and her past mistakes seem to haunt her and cause her to question her decisions. She also seems to be a bit of a pushover, letting the company boss ship her off to Brazil in this quest for answers. Yet it is there in the heart of the jungle that she gains confidence and becomes a stronger person for it. I really enjoyed her story arc.

This book made me question some of my assumptions about medical ethics. This tale shows me that what is right in a modern hospital with sanitary conditions and a pretty universal understanding of the most basic medical ideas isn’t always applicable in a jungle field office where there isn’t a mutually understood language. There were several great scenes where Dr. Swenson, who has been working with this jungle tribe for decades, is doing what she’s been doing for decades and Marina questions the ethics of the situation. The punch comes when Swenson calmly lays out the facts and why what they are doing is the best choice. It was hard to disagree with Swenson.

Now there is Easter. He’s perhaps 12 and he comes from a neighboring tribe that is rather combative to any outsiders. Swenson treated him when he was very young and now acts as his surrogate parent. He’s deaf but can make verbal sounds (though he usually only does so when he has a nightmare). He’s clever and Dr. Eckman taught him the very basics of the alphabet. Easter knows something of what happened to Eckman but Marina isn’t sure she will ever get answers about Eckman’s passing.

The medical mystery they were researching was interesting as well. The women of the local tribe stay fertile well into their 70s or 80s. Plus there is a side mystery that Swenson is very excited about and that involves a possible vaccination for malaria. The story has just enough science and medical talk to add to the story but not enough to leave the non-science person scratching their heads.

All around, it was a most excellent novel. It does wrench the emotions out of the reader later in the book. I loved that it made me question some central medical ethics. The characters were also very interesting. Ah! Easter!

The Narration: Hope Davis was just fabulous! She had distinct character voices and was great at switching between them swiftly and clearly when the characters were in conversation. She also had believable male voices. Her Dr. Swenson was clipped and brutal in her speech, just as I expect she would be in real life.

What I Liked: Jungle medical ethics; the mystery of what Dr. Swenson is really up to; Dr. Eckman’s death; Marina’s strange dreams; Easter!; great narration; makes me question how universal medical ethics are; wrenched some emotions out of me by the end.

What I Disliked: Nothing. This was a very interesting book.

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