Saturday, February 23, 2013

L'état, c'est moi

In my quest for a new, well-written, engaging mystery series with a female protagonist, I failed miserably in selecting The State of the Onion. Theoretically, it could have been great: the main character and unwilling detective is a sous chef at the White House. However, the characters were all so overly caricatured (the scheming staffer, the bitchy cooking show host, the kindly head chef, the Middle Eastern terrorists, the elusive international criminal) that the book wasn't very satisfying. I won't continue to read the series.

Another State completely captivated me, however: Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.

The story of a scientist sent to the Amazon to discover details about the research project a colleague was working on when he disappeared, I think it rivals Bel Canto for my favorite Patchett book. (Hmm..... both take place in South America.)

Like Bel Canto, a certain suspension of belief is necessary in order to melt into the storyline. But the scenarios are just real enough to make them excruciatingly compelling. And unlike so many other of Patchett's books, this one actually ends with some sort of resolution to the plot, rather than annoyingly in media res.State of Wonder encapsulates so many overlapping scientific and anthropological quandaries: pharmaceutical companies stripping the earth of resources and "primitive" cultures of privacy in pursuit of profitable life-saving drugs, the amorphous concepts of life and death in human-induced situations, and that damned illusory Fountain of Youth.  What happens when a U.S. drug company wants something that an isolated tribe in South America takes for granted, with only a team of  researchers and hundreds of miles of jungle keeping the two apart? How do individuals caught in two colliding worlds alter their values, their behavior, their beliefs? It's such a fascinating and gripping tale.

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