Death. Bugs. The mysterious Dr. Swenson. Nightmares. Bugs. Snakes. Intense jungle humidity. Really, really big bugs. From the very beginning of Ann Patchett's latest novel, "State of Wonder," the award-winning author of "Bel Canto" makes the reader feel decidedly uncomfortable. There is no rest, no easy story here. In what may be her most ambitious book yet, Patchett is a master of illusion as she leads us through a literal and figurative jungle of half-truths and unimaginable situations, all to emerge on the other side in a quiet cul-de-sac in Minneapolis.
In addition to her father's Indian heritage, Dr. Marina Singh " ... was cut from Minnesota, the soil and starry night." After a career-changing incident as an ob-gyn resident, she made the switch to pharmacology, where she spent her days working for Vogel, a large pharmaceutical company, and her nights with the company's CEO, Mr. Fox. One afternoon in her quiet lab, Marina received a letter with the news that her colleague Anders Eckman had died while visiting Vogel's research facility led by Dr. Annick Swenson deep in the Amazonian jungle. Urged on by separate but equally intense convictions -- Mr. Fox's that Vogel's interests must be protected, and Eckman's widow's belief that her husband was still alive -- Marina finds herself on a plane to Brazil, clad in wool and fighting the relentless nightmares caused by the anti-malarial drug she'd been taking.
Marina becomes slowly stripped of all that is familiar; her baggage is lost, her communication with Mr. Fox is limited at best, she has no idea where the research facility is, and the anticipation of meeting Dr. Swenson, with whom she has a past, charges the atmosphere like an electric current. When Dr. Swenson finally appears and grudgingly takes Marina with her to the remote Lakashi village where her research is conducted, Marina has no choice but to suspend her disbelief at what she sees. What she imagines to be a research facility that exists to develop fertility drugs is ... and isn't. In an environment where malaria should be prevalent, it is ... and it isn't.
Each scene is written with painstaking detail, from the comfort of Minnesota's smell of "raspberries and sunlight and tender grass," to the jungle's air that smelled of "leaves rotting and leaves unfolding." Patchett's characters are entrancing, and she creates a dreamlike atmosphere that encircles the reader much like Marina's own jungle haze. "State of Wonder" is one of the best books of 2011, and will undoubtedly seal Patchett's reputation as one of today's most talented writers.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.