We recently made a call to Ann Patchett at her favorite spot on the globe—the handsome red brick house she shares with her husband on a tree-lined street in Nashville. The first part of our conversation is taken up with talk of dogs; Rose, Patchett’s great love and the subject of several essays, is now 15 years old.
The author admits to carrying the dog in a baby sling on walks since the terrier mix lost the use of her back legs. “It makes me feel like an insane person, but I couldn’t do the stroller,” Patchett says with a laugh. We all have our limits. (Friend and fellow writer Donna Tartt, who has an ancient paraplegic pug, has been hugely supportive, offering empathy and advice on physical therapy.)
This world of charming homes and coddled pets could not be farther from the exotic one Patchett conjures up in her latest and possibly finest novel to date, State of Wonder.
A woman’s search for her mentor in the South American jungle leads to a shocking discovery.
Set deep in the heart of the Amazonian jungle, State of Wonder tells the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company dispatched to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson. The enigmatic and elusive Swenson, who has virtually disappeared while working on a potentially valuable new drug, does not, however, want to be found; the last person sent to look for her, Marina’s research partner and friend Anders Eckman, died in the process. Hoping to find clues about Anders’ death, Marina reluctantly sets out on a fact-finding mission that will alter the course of her life.
Patchett points out that she wrote State of Wonder “much, much more quickly” than any of her five previous novels. “When I finished Run, which was a book that took me for-bloody-ever, I didn’t have an idea for a book, and that’s really rare,” she says. A conversation with friends changed all that. In 2008, she and her husband were having dinner with Edgar Meyer, the acclaimed Nashville double bass player, and his wife. Patchett and Meyer were bemoaning the fact that they were spending too much time on the road and not enough time at the desk. Patchett recalls, “Edgar said, ‘You know, I had this revelation. I put a notebook at the door to my studio, and I clock in, and I clock out. I’ve discovered that the more hours I spend trying to write, the more I write.’ ” Patchett exclaims, with feigned amazement, “And I thought, wow! What a great idea! I’ve never done that . . . so I made a pledge to write every day and finished the book about a year later.”
At the outset, Patchett knew she wanted to explore a specific kind of relationship, though she wasn’t sure what it would look like. The jungle setting she opted for may be foreign, but relationships are familiar terrain for Patchett, an expert on the intimacies between people and the language of the heart. “I wanted to write about the relationship between a teacher and a student once they had grown up, a student who did everything in her life to please the teacher and to shape herself like the teacher, but the teacher has no idea who the student is, which is a very common scenario—it was a common scenario for me as a student and for me as a teacher. So that was the central relationship and then from there . . .”
Well, from there, let’s just say the narrative takes flight—like a big, scary and strangely beautiful insect you might find in the Amazon. The intricate plot lines twist and turn as the characters encounter poison arrows, anacondas and even a tribe of cannibals. The most threatening thing Singh confronts, however, might be Swenson herself—as formidable now in her 70s as she was during Singh’s student days at Johns Hopkins. The adventure reaches a fever pitch when she learns that Swenson’s initial assignment, to develop an antimalarial drug, has led to a discovery that could have a profound effect on Western society.
South America was also the setting for Bel Canto, Patchett’s most successful novel to date, which won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the UK’s Orange Prize in 2002 and has sold more than a million copies. Asked if that continent holds a certain allure for her, Patchett explains, “Malaria may be more obvious in Africa or India, but I couldn’t figure out a way to develop a drug in those places. I thought, oh, I can’t write another book set in South America because it would be seen as cashing in on Bel Canto. Then I thought, who cares? It’s a big continent. Plus, I never actually say in Bel Canto that it’s in South America.”
Her lush descriptions of the jungle are so finely wrought, you can almost feel the dense, humid air. Patchett says her research did lead her to visit part of South America—though not the area she recreates in the novel. She had planned to go to Manaus, where Singh lands before heading into the jungle, to see friend and celebrated soprano Renée Fleming perform at the opera house there, but the trip fell through when Fleming’s schedule changed. Instead she watched the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo “about 300 times” to familiarize herself with the Manaus opera house where a dramatic scene from the book takes place. In the movie, as in the novel, the opera house is “the only thing that’s keeping anybody sane,” she says.
Patchett writes so convincingly about the Lakashi, the tribe being studied by Dr. Swenson and her team, that one assumes they must actually exist. (They don’t. Elsewhere, Patchett has remarked that she named the tribe after her favorite cereal.) “People ask, where are the Lakashi? How did you find them? And I’m like, are you out of your mind?” she laughs.
Though many details in the book came from her own rich imaginings, Patchett did rely on her husband, Karl VanDevender, an internist, as well as other doctor friends, to make sure the pharmaceutical elements of the novel were scientifically accurate. “Karl and I talked about building that world . . . how can you be developing a drug and find another one in the process?” Patchett recalls. “That’s what we sit around and talk about in the evenings.”
Though the book is neither an indictment of the profit-driven drug industry nor a treatise on medical ethics, it raises profound questions about morality, life and death. Witnessing Swenson’s unorthodox approach and willingness to make extreme sacrifices in the name of science, Singh is forced to search her own heart for what truth lies there—as the reader is forced to recalibrate his or her own moral compass.
With these themes and narrative structure, comparisons to Heart of Darkness are inevitable. “It’s funny because when I wrote this book I was trying to do something modeled on The Ambassadors, my very favorite Henry James novel, which is about someone who goes to Paris to bring back the errant son of someone he works with,” Patchett says. “Somehow the lines crossed along the way, and I kept thinking, this is really seeming a lot more like Heart of Darkness than The Ambassadors. But you know, it’s one of those archetypal themes—character A is dispatched to bring back character B. . . . You’re going to find the other, but what you find is yourself.”
Of the book’s dramatic, somewhat cryptic conclusion, Patchett says, “One of my great goals in the book is to turn the reader out, to have an interactive story where you have to draw conclusions that will lead you forward. I want people to stretch.” Which is exactly what happens. This story lingers, uncoiling itself like a snake, its revelations coming days after the last page is turned. It is a journey into the heart of darkness, but one that offers a glimpse of what lies beyond.