by Jessica LeAnne Jones
I was first introduced to Ann Patchett during college when I read Bel Canto for a lit class. At the risk of sounding cliché, I devoured the novel. It quickly became one of my favorite books; Patchett’s writing style, imagery, and ability to integrate relationships within a large ensemble were seamless. So when I decided to read State of Wonder for my Misandry Book Club Challenge, I knew the story had very large shoes to fill, but I was excited to read more of Patchett’s work.
When the staff at Vogel Pharmaceuticals received word that one of their employees died while conducting research in a small village in Brazil, scientist Marina Singh is sent to discover what really happened during the vague events that surrounded his death. However, she has an alternative mission: to figure out why the research on a revolutionary new fertility drug has taken decades to develop. Vogel is eager to market a product in order to make their extensive funding worthwhile.
Once Marina reaches the village and begins to work with the lead researcher Dr. Swenson, she learns that the main component of the fertility drug also has an alternative property that vaccinates its users against malaria. Dr. Swenson purposefully delayed the research because she was worried about the fate of the Lakashi tribe; she knew that pursuing both drugs would exploit the people and the area, but she was also concerned about how pharmaceutical companies would abuse the public’s ability to gain access to the malaria vaccination. With Dr. Swenson’s refusal to meet Vogel’s deadline, Marina must decide whether to remain faithful to her job or follow in her mentor’s footsteps and protect the Lakashi people from extinction.
The central question in State of Wonder is whether or not the discovery of a worthwhile natural resource is worth the exploitation and possible extinction of an entire indigenous group. Dr. Swenson firmly believes that the existence of the Lakashi tribe is more important than medical discoveries. While she is excited about the development of a malaria vaccination, Dr. Swenson doesn’t trust pharmaceutical companies to take the moral highroad and provide the public with a cheap, readily available vaccine. In this sense, the story is very much anti-capitalist at its core. Even though she works for a pharmaceutical company and has promised to deliver a fertility drug to Vogel, Dr. Swenson rebels because the Lakashi mean more to her than the esteem and money she could make with both the fertility drug and malaria vaccination.
Yet for all its hearty debate concerning the exploitation of an indigenous people group, State of Wonder remains problematic in the way that Patchett portrays the Lakashi. For a story that takes place primarily in their village, the tribespeople are given no major parts and no agency; they are merely a backdrop to Marina’s personal growth. The one Lakashi character that is given the slightest spotlight is a child, and a mute one at that. Easter has no lines and constantly has Dr. Swenson interpret and disregard his actions. But even though all the white characters look upon Easter as a son figure, he is traded off to save the life of an American at the end of the story.
For me, the book was a less severe version of Eat, Pray, Love, where a white woman goes off to discover an “exotic” location that “changes” her outlook on life, making her a stronger woman than when she started. The exclusion of any meaningful Lakashi characters is extremely troubling. It seems almost exploitative, which is the opposite message that State of Wonder tried to make.
While Patchett’s writing style is prosaic and stylized, her exclusion of significant Lakashi characters undermines the novel’s attempts to assert that indigenous tribes shouldn’t be used for “white profit.” Patchett clearly had no problem using a foreign culture as the backdrop for her story and made no attempt to make the Lakashi people or their culture feel real. Instead, setting her story in the middle of the “exotic” Amazon rainforest seemed more like a convenience so she could make up a semi-plausible excuse to create miracle drugs for her story. It was disappointing.
So to cheer myself up, I reread Bel Canto.
Watch Ann Patchett talk about independent bookstores and laugh about Jeff Bezos on The Colbert Report