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Loss, recovery, and renewal in Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.

Like the main character in the opera she attends one night in Manaus, Brazil--Orfeo ed Euridice--Marina Singh believes she "had been sent to hell" to bring someone back (State of Wonder. NY: Harper Perennial, 2012.124). She has been assigned to retrieve the body and belongings of her friend and colleague, Anders Eckman, from a small outpost of scientific research deep in the Amazon rainforest, where he had presumably died of a fever, the first of many losses in Ann Patchett's 2011 novel State of Wonder. Breaking Orpheus' pattern--loss, recovery, and loss again--Marina suffers loss, recovery, and then renewal--perhaps even to a better state.

Marina's losses are a gradual stripping away of everything she is and everything she believes in and trusts. On the journey to retrieve what is left of Anders and discover the details of his death, her luggage is lost, leaving her without her normal clothes--which signify her identity as a woman and a doctor--and her phone--eliminating her ability to communicate with her lover and boss, Mr. Fox. She is forced to buy cheap replacements in the city of Manaus, but these don't last long, for she loses her bag again as she gets to the village of the Lakashi people, leaving her with only the clothes on her back because she "walked off and left her suitcase on the boat" (191). Finally, she is stripped of her rain-soaked clothes by Lakashi women she believes want to dry them for her, only to find she has been "scammed" (208) as they disappear for good. She is left with nothing but a thin native shift and flip flops, her identity so transformed that tourists at a nearby trading post believe she is a native and take their picture with her.

The Amazon continues to strip away her identity. Although her father was from India, Marina grew up in Minnesota and feels "profoundly suited" for that state. Until this trip to the Amazon, rather than travel, she has developed a "desire to stay" on that "particular patch of earth" (45), yet finds herself in an alien jungle teeming with strange flora and fauna. She feels lost on the river, watching "civilization drop away again and again before they reached their final destination" (166), and feels wary of the jungle, afraid to stray from a given path lest she become permanently lost.

We learn that she has lost other things, her profession as a doctor, for example. During her residency, under the tutelage of the woman who is now running the research station in the Amazon, Dr. Swenson, Marina accidentally blinded a baby during a cesarean section and so turned to research pharmacology instead, having "given up her profession" (281). In addition, when she is taking malaria medicine, she experiences debilitating nightmares in which she is a small girl walking the busy streets of India with her father, developing "that hollow, hopeless feeling of having lost him in the crowd" (224). In fact, she loses so many things that she concludes: "There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was that there was no getting used to it" (269).

As the story of Anders unravels, Marina learns that he might still be alive. She takes her deaf child-guide, Easter, a boy whose own tribe had lost him years before, and makes her way through the tributaries of the river to the village where Anders may have been spotted. After learning about Anders' true fate, Marina contemplates her losses and realizes there "is in fact a circle of hell beneath this one" in which she will be required to lose even more: "She had been foolish enough to think that she had given up everything when in fact she could see now that she hadn't even started" (331). She is not wrong. In exchange for Anders, she must give the tribe back their lost child, Easter, a boy Marina "would have sworn ... was hers" (347). As she and Anders return to the Lakashi people, she knows that "in order to bring [Anders] back she had given up everything she had known in the world" (342).

It is at this point in the novel that the major difference between the Orpheus and Euridice myth and Marina's story becomes apparent. In exchange for the loss of all that she has and all that she is, Marina not only recovers what she came to the Amazon seeking, but she also retrieves much of what she has lost. This process begins with simple things: as she goes through Easter's belongings back at the Lakashi village, she finds a box with "not only Anders' passport but her own.... She also found her wallet, her plane ticket, and her phone" (348). In a conversation with Dr. Swenson, Marina is told "Everyone at some point nicks a skull, nicks an ear.... In retrospect the real loss was your quitting the program" (322). These words are what she had needed to hear when the accident with the baby occurred, words that, said years earlier, might have encouraged her to pursue her dream of practicing medicine. She feels "the burden of her lifetime" has been lifted from her (322). And as she and Anders travel back to Minnesota, her secure identity returns to her: "Every mile they went backwards they felt themselves turning into the people they had been" (352).

Most significant, however, is what has happened physically to Marina. While she had been visiting the tribe, she had adopted the practice each morning of following the native women to a group of trees called Martins, to chew the bark. The practice was believed to inoculate against malaria as well as make women fertile throughout their whole lives. Although Marina is over forty, Patchett implies that having a child was something that Marina regretted not doing. And on the one night back at the village before leaving for home, Marina and Anders have sex, an act not of lust, but "a physical act of kindness, a comfort, a sublime tenderness between friends" (350). The next morning, Marina had been sure she would "go to the Martins one last time before leaving," but suddenly feels "finished with the trees" (350). It is a sign that the night of intimacy has culminated in a pregnancy for Marina, for we learn earlier that "the bark repulses [women] from what seems to be the moment of conception" (262). Marina loses everything but recovers more than she lost, and finally is renewed in a way she could never have imagined.

Index for Volume 43 (2013)

Adair, William. The Sun Also Rises: Sgt. Stubby The Dog In The Window And Other War Allusions. 43.4:7-8.

Boeninger, Stephanie Pocock "The Matching Swans": Yeatsian Mythology In Louise Gluck's Descending Figure. 43.4: 2-4.

Eubanks, Peter. Poetry And Prophecy In Robert Fanning's American Prophet. 43.2:6-8.

Kolin, Philip. Brides And Gore In Suzan-Lori Parks's Devotees In The Garden Of Love. 42.3:4-8.

Kolin, Philip. The Theatricalization Of Belief In Tennessee Williams's "Thank You, Kind Spirit." 43.6-9.

Magome, Kiyoko. Secret Function Of A String Quartet in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. 43.1:2-4.

Meyers, Jeffrey. The Commentator In The Magic Mountain. 43.1:4-6.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Anthony Hecht's Elegies . 43.4:8-11.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Allusions In The Magic Mountain. 43.1:9-12.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Dostoevsky's The Possessed And Nineteen Eighty-Four. 43.3:11-12.

Meyers, Jeffrey. From The Magic Mountain To Doctor Faustus. 43.2:8-10.

Meyers, Jeffrey. The Literary Lineage Of Names In The Great Gatsby 43.3;2-4.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Lowell And Napoleon. 43.2:3-6

Meyers, Jeffrey. "The Unquiet Grave": A New Source For Joyce's "The Dead." 43.4:4-6.

Mohapatra, Nadita. Pilgrim's Progress: Cheever's Falconer. 43.1:6-9

Moore, Michael. The Dog Balak And The Role Of Language in Agnon's Only Yesterday. 43.4:11.12

Novikov, Tatyana. Routes Of Passage: Emil Draitser's From Here To Wherever. 43.3:.8-10.

Shrivastava, Jaya & Joe Varghese. "The city knows you": Spatial Consciousness in Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York. 43.5:4-6.

Sutton, Brian. Interconnectedness In Kushner's Angels In America. 43.2:2:3.

Varghese, Joe & Jaya Shrivastava "The city knows you": Spatial Consciousness in Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York (2003).43.5:4-6

Ziegler, Robert. Coming Together: Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island. 43.5:2-4.

Ziegler, Robert. The Hospitality Of Strangers In Jean Echenoz's I'm Gone (Je M'en Vais). 43.2:10-12.
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Author:Bennett, Barbara
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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