This is a novel of integrity and clarity with compassionate intelligence behind it; it's a story which holds the reader long after the final page has been turned, and it poses questions of ethics to exercise the intellect. I suppose it has everything I unconsciously look for in a book.
It is set largely in the Amazonian rainforest where the maverick scientist Dr. Annick Swenson is conducting revolutionary research into female fertility. Funding for the drug she is developing comes from the Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company Vogel, but as Dr. Swenson refuses to report on progress and remains frustratingly out of contact (even her precise whereabouts are unknown), the CEO has sent one of his own team to find out what's going on. Anders Eckman was despatched from Eden Prairie to deepest Brazil, but little was heard from or about him until a curt note arrived to say that he had contracted a fever and died.
Anders's wife needs to understand exactly what happened to him, and Vogel still want a definitive indication of how soon the drug can move to clinical trials and thence to market, so Anders's colleague and friend Dr. Marina Singh undertakes the mission to the Rio Negro and the Swenson camp to try to bring back answers to their questions. She was once a student of Dr. Swenson's, and it was her tutelage that was to directly determine the course of Marina's career; her visit to the jungle is thus no small undertaking, either professionally or personally.
The plot is, I think, brilliantly and beautifully devised, and set into it are very clearly drawn characters, not least the imperious Dr. Swenson, a woman of "brio [...], utter assuredness [...] indefatigably right". The work being carried out in the jungle is fascinating and raises many questions and matters of conscience, both at universal and individual levels, and some very careful, creative thought has gone into this aspect of the book. In this short clip you'll hear Ann Patchett say that in writing State of Wonder she wanted to make the reader think about different issues, not just to be entertained "but sort of stirred up by this book", and that would be her best case scenario, she says. She has certainly achieved her aim.