I'm always on the lookout for novels with a female scientist as the protagonist. I just finished reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. This is the first novel I've read written by Patchett, who has published several books, some award-winning.
In State of Wonder, the story is told from the viewpoint of Dr. Marina Singh, a medical science researcher working for a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota. The company is funding another researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson, to develop a new fertility drug; Swenson's research is based in the Amazonian rainforest where the drug is apparently being extracted from a tropical plant source. When Swenson, who is an irascible and independent scientist, fails to respond to inquiries about the project's progress, the company sends Anders Eckman, Marina's long-time colleague and research partner, to the Amazon to find out what's going on with the research project. The company CEO eventually receives a letter from Swenson stating that Eckman has died of a fever and has been buried in the jungle. At the urging of Eckman's wife, along with orders from the company, Marina agrees to travel to the Amazon to find out what actually happened to her friend and colleague as well as what is going on with the research. The rest of the book tells the story of Marina's odyssey through a remote rainforest of primitive Brazilian tribes, science intrigue, and personal discovery.
The characters are complex and interesting, and the story has many twists and turns that keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens next. Several surprises await the patient reader. There are several ethical dilemmas that are explored: profit-driven drug development, the use of indigenous people as experimental subjects, and self experimentation by science researchers (a stereotype, but done in a novel and sympathetic way). Patchett writes about these ethical issues in an intelligent and non-proselytizing manner. Best of all, the novel has two "strong female" characters, who provide contrasting scientist personalities: the (apparently) emotionless and driven, older female scientist (Swenson) who has succeeded in science through grit, perseverance, and a single-minded focus on her work vs. the younger, sensitive, and caring scientist who fled into research after a disastrous obstetrical mistake she made as a medical intern.
Those of us in scientific research will identify with one of these characters (or aspects of both). Swenson, who is nearing the end of her career and life (she's seventy-two), is the more interesting character whose true motives and personality are gradually revealed. She initially appears to be completely lacking in any concern for the people around her and so totally focused on her research goals that she has isolated herself in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest (some reviewers describe the novel as "Heart of Darkness" meets "The Mosquito Coast" with a bit of "Medicine Man" thrown in). I imagine most readers will dislike the Swenson character and her behavior. Having had to deal with many bureaucratic types interfering with my research, however, I understood and empathized with Swenson. I don't agree with all the choices this character made, but could understand them.
The Marina character will likely resonate with many female readers. She seems to be a very caring person and highly empathetic to other people's feelings. She's a flawed person, however, who is adrift emotionally and extremely lonely. Her story is not only one of a search for what happened to her friend and colleague, but an internal journey of self-discovery and redemption. I could identify with aspects of Marina's personality, but found her to be a character quite unlike me and my personality. From a science standpoint, she is clearly a "lab person", not comfortable in a field setting--at least not initially. She survives, however, and quickly becomes acclimated to life in the jungle. Having seen this happen with people in real life, I found this aspect to be quite believable (but imagine some readers will not).
There is a lot of symbolism in the novel: dreams and their depiction of subconscious fears and needs; the suffocating Brazilian rainforest with poisonous animals, extreme heat and humidity, and a mysterious indigenous people who hold the key to medical discoveries. These elements are woven skillfully into the story and contribute to the overall character development and story background. I won't go into details because this may reveal too much.
So if you are looking for a good book to read this summer, State of Wonder, is one I can recommend. Even if you don't like the story or the ending, you will find a number of aspects to ponder about later. This is a great book for a reading group, with lots of ethical issues to discuss as well as an interesting story to dissect.
Let me know what you think...