Eat, Drink, Read: 'State of Wonder' by Ann Patchett

Meg Wolitzer reviews this month’s book club pick: a tale of adventure and self-discovery set in the heart of the rain forest. For your next dine-and-debate, pair the novel with an exotic brazilian cocktail.


Reviewed by Meg Wolitzer; Recipe by Susan Spungen
state of wonder by ann patchett
Photograph: Avery Powell

Imagine that Joseph Conrad came to Ann Patchett one night in a fever dream and said, Write your version of Heart of Darkness. If Patchett complied, the result would be this thrilling new novel, which takes the reader deep into the Amazon and explores the complexities of female relationships, the mysteries of fertility, the morality of science and entitlement, and one’s sense of self in a diverse and shifting world.


Into the inhospitable jungle, a place where “at dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging,” comes Marina Singh, a research scientist at the pharmaceutical company Vogel in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Her life has been cautiously routine—until a colleague is reported dead in the jungle and she’s tasked with traveling to South America to learn how he died and to report on the progress of Vogel’s increasingly reticent research team. There, Marina is reunited with her former professor and the team’s lead scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, an elusive, Kurtz-like literary monster who “looked for all the world like somebody’s Swedish grandmother on a chartered tour of the Amazon.”

Dr. Swenson is in the jungle studying a tribe of women who become pregnant into their sixties and seventies, and she’s working on a wonder drug based on her research. The scientific details feel authentic, but what’s most compelling here is the unsettling dance between the onetime student and her arrogant, disdainful teacher.

All novels are, in a sense, fever dreams, allowed to develop in wild directions inside a writer’s sensibility. But the world imagined in this novel is unusually vivid (moths have “wings the size of handkerchiefs”; bats stick to walls, “flattened out like thick daubs of mud”), set into relief against the cool surface of Minnesota life. Reading State of Wonder is a sensory experience, and even after it’s over you’ll keep hearing the sounds of insects, and your own head will still be hot.


Blood Orange Caipirinha
Makes 2 drinks
1 blood orange
1 lime, cut into 8 wedges
4 teaspoons superfine sugar
4 ounces cachaça
(Brazilian sugarcane liquor)
Cracked ice
Club soda
1. Cut the blood orange in half lengthwise. Squeeze half, and set the juice aside. Slice the other half into 4 wedges.
2. Place 4 lime wedges and 2 blood orange wedges in each of 2 rocks glasses. Add 2 teaspoons sugar to each. Muddle the sugar and wedges. Fill each glass with ice to the top. Divide the blood orange juice between the glasses. Pour 2 ounces cachaça over each. Transfer the contents of each glass, one at a time, to a cocktail shaker; shake vigorously, and return to the glass. Top off with club soda.


First Published May 23, 2011

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