Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder plays out, for me, like an extended ethics scenario. There are so many questions she asks, and the questions are so big, that you could spend years thinking about your answer. There are dilemmas everywhere and none of the options are particularly appealing, but considering them along with the characters is a lot of fun. At least it was for me, but I’m the sort of person who likes to think about impossible questions.
The protagonist, Marina Singh, researches cholesterol and statins for a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota. When word comes that her fellow researcher, Anders Erickson, died in the Amazon while trying to check up on yet another researcher that is developing a fertility drug. This researcher, Dr. Swenson, stopped sending in reports about her progress. So when word comes of Erickson’s death, they decide the situation is critical enough that Marina has to go and find out what happened. Marina, though she spent summers in India, is not at all prepared for the heat, the humidity, the insects, and the generally unhygienic conditions. Most of all, she’s not prepared for Dr. Swenson. Swenson, now 73, has been coming to the Amazon for fifty years to research the remarkable fertility of the Lakashi women—who seem to be able to have babies all the way into their seventies. Swenson is fiercely private and resents every intrusion by her bosses into finding out what she’s up to. It takes a long time for Marina to even get to Swenson’s remote lab at the Lakashi village.
A lot of the book is a meandering meditation about life in the jungle, about anthropology, about medical ethics, about interference, and much more. There is a lot to absorb about this book, but I think that State of Wonder asks two very important questions. First, should we interfere in the lives of others if it means that they may become dependent on us? Second, if you had a secret that needed to be protected, how high a price would you be willing to pay?
So, to the first question. Dr. Swenson is fiercely anti-interference. She is resistant to treating the members of the tribe because she wants, as much as possible, to keep things the way they would have been if she wasn’t there. Personally, I think this is because she hates to make relationships with anyone, since the ones she’s had ended up fairly disastrous. But I would think, if you can do some good, you should interfere. Swenson is also reluctant to interfere because she wants to preserve the Lakashis’ traditional way of life. Here’s where the question gets trickier. On the one hand, cultures are worth preserving. But on the other hand, if you know that going to the shaman means that a child will die of an easily treatable illness…?
And the second question. I can’t say what the question actually is without giving away a big part of the story, I will say that it balances saving an untold number of people against defrauding a pharmaceutical company. The Robin Hood in me would say, “Defraud away!” But the law abiding part of me would own up to the truth.
After a couple of hundred pages of meandering, the plot speeds up. I’m not sure why Patchett decides to change the pace at this point because it makes the action at the end seem like an afterthought, only needed to wrap up the stories loose ends. This part of the book doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the story. It’s really the only criticism I have of State of Wonder. I hate to say it, but it’s almost like Patchett got bored and was in a hurry to finish.
I’d recommend State of Wonder anyway, because there are so few books that ask really tough but meaningful questions the way that this book does. It does one good to ponder big questions every now and then.