Sometimes being on the vanguard of scientific progress thrusts you into the teeth of danger. For Minnesota pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh, that means being sent into the remotest region of the Amazon jungle to track down her former mentor. Finding Dr. Annick Swenson promises to be perilous: The last scientist assigned to find her has disappeared too. What follows is the most ambitious novel yet by Bel Canto author Ann Patchett as its adventure story opens into a penetrating study of personalities, loyalties, and ethics. Editor's recommendation.
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State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
Copyright © 2011 Ann Patchett
All right reserved.
The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram,
a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the
stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the en-
velope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet
had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a
breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor
it to this world. Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the
lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she
smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.
"What?" she said finally.
He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all
he could say was, "It's snowing."
"I heard on the radio it was going to." The window in the lab where
she worked faced out into the hall and so she never saw the weather
until lunchtime. She waited for a minute for Mr. Fox to say what he
had come to say. She didn't think he had come all the way from his
office in the snow, a good ten buildings away, to give her a weather
report, but he only stood there in the frame of the open door, unable
either to enter the room or step out of it. "Are you all right?"
"Eckman's dead," he managed to say before his voice broke, and
then with no more explanation he gave her the letter to show just how
little about this awful fact he knew.
There were more than thirty buildings on the Vogel campus, labs
and office buildings of various sizes and functions. There were
labs with stations for twenty technicians and scientists to work at the
same time. Others had walls and walls of mice or monkeys or dogs. This
particular lab Marina had shared for seven years with Dr. Eckman. It
was small enough that all Mr. Fox had to do was reach a hand towards
her, and when he did she took the letter from him and sat down slowly
in the gray plastic chair beside the separator. At that moment she un-
derstood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of
her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as
if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were
all being brought together at closer angles. Anders Eckman, tall in his
white lab coat, his hair a thick graying blond. Anders bringing her a
cup of coffee because he'd picked one up for himself. Anders giving
her the files she'd asked for, half sitting down on the edge of her desk
while he went over her data on proteins. Anders father of three. Anders
not yet fifty. Her eyes went to the datesMarch 15th on the letter,
March 18th on the postmark, and today was April 1st. Not only was
he dead, he was two weeks dead. They had accepted the fact that they
wouldn't hear from him often and now she realized he had been gone
so long that at times he would slip from her mind for most of a day.
The obscurity of the Amazonian tributary where Dr. Swenson did her
research had been repeatedly underscored to the folks back in Minne-
sota (Tomorrow this letter will be handed over to a child floating downriver in a dugout
log, Anders had written her. I cannot call it a canoe. There never were statistics
written to cover the probability of its arrival.), but still, it was in a country, it
was in the world. Surely someone down there had an Internet connec-
tion. Had they never bothered to find it? "Wouldn't she call you? There
has to be some sort of global satellite"
"She won't use the phone, or she says it doesn't work there." As
close as they were in this quiet room she could scarcely hear his voice.
"But for this" She stopped herself. He didn't know. "Where is he
now?" Marina asked. She could not bring herself to say his body. Anders
was not a body. Vogel was full of doctors, doctors working, doctors
in their offices drinking coffee. The cabinets and storage rooms and
desk drawers were full of drugs, pills of every conceivable stripe. They
were a pharmaceutical company; what they didn't have they figured
out how to make. Surely if they knew where he was they could find
something to do for him, and with that thought her desire for the im-
possible eclipsed every piece of science she had ever known. The dead
were dead were dead were dead and still Marina Singh did not have to
shut her eyes to see Anders Eckman eating an egg salad sandwich in
the employee cafeteria as he had done with great enthusiasm every day
she had known him.
"Don't you read the reports on cholesterol?" she would ask, always
willing to play the straight man.
"I write the reports on cholesterol," Anders said, running his finger
around the edge of his plate.
Mr. Fox lifted his glasses, pressed his folded handkerchief against
the corners of his eyes. "Read the letter," he said.
She did not read it aloud.
The rain has been torrential here, not unseasonable yet year after year it
never ceases to surprise me. It does not change our work except to make it more
time-consuming and if we have been slowed we have not been deterred. We
move steadily towards the same excellent results.
But for now this business is not our primary concern. I write with
unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given
our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one
and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury
him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions. I must tell you
it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr. Eckman's mission, I assure
you we are making strides. I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to
whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy. Despite any
setbacks, we persevere.
Marina started over at the top. When she had read it through
again she still could not imagine what to say. "Is she calling Anders
She held the letter by its slightest edges as if it were a document still
to be submitted into evidence. Clearly the paper had been wet at some
point and then dried again. She could tell by the way it was puckered
in places, it had been carried out in the rain. Dr. Swenson knew all
about the relationship of paper and ink and rain and so she cut in her
letters with a pencil of hard, dark lead, while on the other side of Eden
Prairie, Minnesota, Karen Eckman sat in a two-story brick colonial
thinking her husband was in Brazil and would be coming home as
soon as he could make Dr. Swenson listen to reason.
Marina looked at the clock. They should go soon, before it was
time for Karen to pick the children up from school. Every now and
then, if Anders happened to look at his watch at two-thirty, he would
say to himself in a quiet voice, School's out. Three little Eckmans, three
boys, who, like their mother, did not know enough to picture their
father dead. For all that loss Dr. Swenson had managed to use just
over half the sheet of paper, and in the half a sheet she used she had
twice thought to mention the weather. The rest of it simply sat there,
a great blue sea of emptiness. How much could have been said in
those remaining inches, how much explained, was beyond scientific
Mr. Fox closed the door and came to stand beside Marina's chair.
He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed, and because the blinds
on the windows that faced the hall were down she dropped her cheek
against the top of his hand and for a while they stayed like this, washed
over in the palest blue fluorescent light. It was a comfort to them both.
Mr. Fox and Marina had never discussed how they would conduct
their relationship at work. They had no relationship at work, or not
one that was different from anyone else's. Mr. Fox was the CEO of
Vogel. Marina was a doctor who worked in statin development. They
had met, really met, for the first time late the summer before at a com-
pany softball game, doctors vs. administration. Mr. Fox came over to
compliment her pitching, and that compliment led to a discussion of
their mutual fondness for baseball. Mr. Fox was not a doctor. He had
been the first CEO to come from the manufacturing side. When she
spoke of him to other people she spoke of Mr. Fox. When she spoke to
him in front of other people she addressed him as Mr. Fox. The prob-
lem was calling him Jim when they were alone. That, it turned out, was
a much more difficult habit to adopt.
"I shouldn't have sent him," Mr. Fox said.
She raised her head then and took his hand in her hands. Mr. Fox
had no reason to wear a lab coat. Today he wore a dark gray suit and
striped navy tie, and while it was a dignified uniform for a man of sixty,
he looked out of place whenever he strayed from the administrative
offices. Today it occurred to Marina that he looked like he was on his
way to a funeral. "You didn't make him go."
"I asked him to go. I suppose he could have turned me down but it
wasn't very likely."
"But you never thought something like this would happen. You
didn't send him someplace dangerous." Marina wondered if she knew
this to be true. Of course there were poisonous snakes and razor-
toothed fish but she pictured them safely away from the places where
doctors conducted scientific research. Anyway, the letter had said he
died of a fever, not a snake bite. There were plenty of fevers to be had
right here in Minnesota. "Dr. Swenson's been down there for five years
now. Nothing's happened to her."
"It wouldn't happen to her," Mr. Fox said without kindness in his voice.
Anders had wanted to go to the Amazon. That was the truth.
What are the chances a doctor who worked in statin development
would be asked to go to Brazil just as winter was becoming unendur-
able? He was a serious birder. Every summer he put the boys in a canoe
and paddled them through the Boundary Waters with binoculars and
notepads looking for ruddy ducks and pileated woodpeckers. The first
thing he did when he got word about the trip was order field guides to
the rain forest, and when they came he abandoned all pretense of work.
He put the blood samples back in the refrigerator and pored over the
slick, heavy pages of the guides. He showed Marina the birds he hoped
to see, wattled jacanas with toes as long as his hand, guira cuckoos
with downy scrub brushes attached to the tops of their heads. A person
could wash out the inside of a pickle jar with such a bird. He bought a
new camera with a lens that could zoom straight into a nest from fifty
feet away. It was not the kind of luxury Anders would have afforded
himself under normal circumstances.
"But these are not normal circumstances," he said, and took a pic-
ture of his coworker at her desk.
At the bright burst of the flash, Marina raised her head from a
black-necked red cotinga, a bird the size of a thumb who lived in
a cone-shaped daub of mud attached to the tip of a leaf. "It's an
ambitious lot of birds." She studied every picture carefully, mar-
veling at the splendors of biodiversity. When she saw the hyacinth
macaws she experienced one split second of regret that she wasn't the
one Mr. Fox had tapped for the job. It was a singularly ridiculous
thought. "You'll be too busy with birds to ever find the time to talk
to Dr. Swenson."
"I imagine I'll find a lot of birds before I find Dr. Swenson, and
when I do find her I doubt she'll pack up on the first day and rush
back to Johns Hopkins. These things take finesse. Mr. Fox said that
himself. That leaves me with a lot of daylight hours."
Finding Dr. Swenson was an issue. There was an address in Manaus
but apparently it was nowhere near the station where she did her field
research; that location, she believed, needed to be protected with the
highest level of secrecy in order to preserve both the unspoiled nature
of her subjects and the value of the drug she was developing. She had
made the case so convincingly that not even Mr. Fox knew where she
was exactly, other than somewhere on a tributary off the Rio Negro.
How far away from Manaus that tributary might begin and in which
direction it ran no one could say. Worse than that was the sense that
finding her was going to be the easy part. Marina looked at Anders
straight on and again he raised his camera. "Stop that," she said,
and turned her palm to the lens. "What if you can't get her to come
back at all?"
"Of course I can," Anders said. "She likes me. Why do you think
I'm the one Mr. Fox decided to send?"
It was possible that Dr. Swenson had liked him on the one day she
spent at Vogel seven years ago, when she had sat at a conference table
with Anders and four other doctors and five executives who made up
the Probability Assessment Group to discuss the preliminary budget
for the development of a program in Brazil. Marina could have told
him Dr. Swenson had no idea who he was, but why would she have said
that? Surely he knew.
Excerpted from State of Wonder by Ann Patchett Copyright © 2011 by Ann Patchett. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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