Ann Patchett and her new novel travel deep into the Amazon jungle

Milwaukee Journal SentinelJune 26, 2011 

If it's not hot and buggy enough for you this summer, join Ann Patchett for a trip deep into the Amazon, where the moths have wings the size of handkerchiefs. Just watch out for the malaria, the cannibals and the obsessed doctor.

In State of Wonder (Harper, $26.99), Patchett sends Marina Singh, a fortyish pharmaceutical researcher, on that nightmarish journey, in search of the remains of a former colleague, and of the truth about a possible miracle fertility drug that could make millions for her employer.

Some early reviewers have likened State of Wonder to Joseph Conrad's famous novel about a trip down a river deep into the jungle.

"Everybody's looking for a catchphrase," Patchett said in a telephone interview. "It's Heart of Darkness about women."

She said she didn't think about Heart of Darkness and her novel until she was about halfway through it. The main influence on this book, Patchett said, was Werner Herzog, particularly his films Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, both about obsessives and both set in the unforgiving Amazon. As when a saxophonist musically quotes a mentor, a scene that Patchett set in an opera house in this book is a direct homage to a scene in Fitzcarraldo.

Patchett made a research voyage into the Peruvian Amazon, on Gourmet magazine's dime. She spent the first half of the journey on a boat. "I really enjoyed that. I like being on the river, seeing out, from side to side."

She had a different feeling about the time she spent in a jungle lodge: "It was very claustrophobic. The jungle just smashes you. You can't catch your breath.

"You can't do anything on your own in the jungle. Something will kill you and eat you."

Patchett said she was glad, for the sake of the book, that she "stayed to the point where I was miserable."

Marina's misery in State of Wonder isn't all caused by the jungle. Some comes from her encounter with the imperious Dr. Annick Swenson, who is pursuing the fertility drug in the Amazon and who was once Singh's obstetrics instructor in medical school. A medical crisis in the jungle forces Singh to confront a failure in her student past, and the way it shaped her life.

"I wanted to write a book about a grown-up student who encounters a teacher later in life who made her life," Patchett said.

"I have had teachers who completely shaped who I am in hopes of pleasing them. I have had students who changed the course of their life because of something I said."

Patchett, who is happily childless by choice, calls her novel a cautionary tale about the desire for endless fertility.

"Everyone seems to think you don't have to make a choice (about having children). You can freeze your eggs, decide to have children later."

In State of Wonder, fertility is stretched way beyond the normal human span. People get their wish, Patchett said, but it isn't pretty.

In a book world that is hungry for good news, Patchett caused a stir recently when she announced plans to open a bookstore in Nashville, where she lives. She and business partner Karen Hayes, an experienced Random House sales rep, plan to open Parnassus Books this year.

In the past six months, Patchett said, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, a big independent bookseller that was a sister store to Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, and the Borders in her area closed. "I have a book out. This is my city, and I don't have a bookstore," she told the Nashville Tennessean in a recent interview.

Hayes had a plan worked out for a store, with everything but the money, which is where Patchett stepped in. "Now we are working together. This will be her job," she said.

The bookstores that closed in Nashville were more than 30,000 square feet. People were buying books, but a store of that size can't be sustained, she said. Her Parnassus is likely to be a compact store: about 2,000 square feet, maybe 3,000 if there's a café.

One of their model stores is the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., a newish and much talked-about indie.

Patchett jokes that she will limit herself to gift-wrapping at the store, but on the road, she has already turned bookseller. After she picked up a copy of the late Jeannette Haein's The All of It in a used bookstore, "I was so in love with it, I got my publisher to reissue it."

Patchett wrote an introduction to the short novel, set in a small Irish town, and she is selling it along with her own books on her book tour.

She also is reading The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes' history of the founding of Australia, in preparation for a trip to the continent. "Brutal brutal," Patchett called it. "Not since Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee have I read such a disturbing book."

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