State of Wonder by Ann Patchett is a well written blend of biology, botany, anthropology, geography, and economics. It begins as an interesting novel but develops into a compelling tale. The protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, is a first person narrator and therefore has limited knowledge and can tell only what she knows, a significant factor as the story unfolds. She was trained as an obstetrician but is working as a pharmacologist in the lab of a large corporation. Her job and life are rather dull except for her affair with her boss, a rather stuffy widower. Cliche? On page one she learns that her lab partner Anders Eckman has died while on a company trip to the Amazon jungle where he had been sent to investigate the progress of the development of a fertility drug. Marina is sent by her boss/lover to complete Anders' investigation and to learn the details of his death.
There are numerous well drawn, interesting characters in addition to Marina: Dr. Annick Swenson, the lead scientist of the Amazon fertility/malaria study; Dr. Swenson's four person staff; Easter, a very bright 12 year old deaf mute native boy; and others. There are plenty but not too many for the casual reader to keep track of.
The diet of the native women prevents menopause and permits them to remain fertile at least to their 70's. The drug company is investing heavily to learn their secret, hoping to bring it to the American market for young professional women who may want to delay the formation of a family. The fertile women are also immune to malaria, an interesting scientific phenomenon and important public health consideration, but of little economic significance to a major corporation.
The narration is fascinating and nonlinear, with considerable interaction between dreams and reality, presented quite believably.
Not surprisingly the fertility drug study deals with a number of other maternal issues. More unexpectedly, paternal roles are also considered. Both sides of the parental coin are handled effectively and with insights. The mothers prove to be the superior side, more loving, interesting, and reliable. The fathers seem remote and ephemeral.
Patchett describes the rain forest in a minimalist style, but effectively, a good thing since so much of the story occurs there. As Marina and Easter float a minor tributary of the Rio Negro, "The jungle closed over the entrances and after a few minutes she could no longer see the way out. In some places the trees touched leaves from either side and knit together a canopy, cutting the light into leaf-shaped shadows that covered over the water....wondering if the turn they had taken could possibly have be the right one."
Patchett tells us that the great lesson in science is to "never be so focused on what you're looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find."
Much more can be said about this fine novel but be aware that it is a tale told by a female author, through a female narrator, largely about women and, perhaps, aimed at an audience of women. However, it warrants the praise and approval of male readers as well.