State of Wonder Summary and Study Guide

Ann Patchett

State of Wonder

  • 52-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 11 chapter summaries and 6 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by an experienced high school teacher with a Master's Degree in English
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State of Wonder Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature.  This 52-page guide for “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 11 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Civilization as a Corrupting Force and The Power of Medicine to Aid and Exploit.

Plot Summary

The plot of State of Wonder moves through three distinct phases and/or settings: Chapter 1, which is set in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Chapters 2-5 set in the city of Manaus, Brazil, and Chapters 6-11 set at Dr. Swenson’s research station, tucked away deep in the Amazonian rainforest.

The novel begins at the Vogel Corporation’s Biomedical Research Campus in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the CEO, Jim Fox, and Dr. Marina Singh, a research pharmacologist working at the Vogel lab, receive devastating news about the death of a beloved colleague, Anders, at a remote Amazon research station. The news arrives in the form of a cryptic letter, a blue aerogramme, from the stations director, Dr. Swenson. Marina, who has worked with Anders in the lab for seven years, grapples with the loss of a close friend, while her boss and lover, Mr. Fox, grapples with his guilt at having sent an ill-equipped Anders to the Amazon, against the recommendation of the corporate board. Dr. Swenson’s letter raises several questions, and given the fact that she has ceased all direct contact with Vogel, her corporate patrons, about the progress of her research for the past 26 months, the news about Anders is particularly troubling.

Considering that Anders was originally sent to the Amazonian station to reestablish communication between the lab and the Vogel Corporation and to hasten that lab’s development of a fertility drug with vast profit potential, his sudden disappearance raises at least the suggestion of a conspiratorial cover-up. The stakes are high, as Vogel has invested significant amounts of money for this potentially game-changing fertility drug. With the sheer volume of money invested, the long delay of the drug’s development and with mounting questions surrounding the disappearance of one of their employees, Vogel plans to send a second company employee on a fact-finding and intelligence gathering mission. Marina agrees to take on this responsibility, making the dangerous trip to Brazil to discover what happened to Anders and to hasten the progress of the drug.

When she reaches Manaus, in Brazil, Marina finds herself in a virtual limbo as she attempts to track down Dr. Swenson with the help of her resourceful guide and interpreter, Milton. Standing between her and Dr. Swenson are the Bovenders, a young, beautiful, and bohemian Australian couple who work as gatekeepers for Dr. Swenson. They stay in her lavish apartment in exchange for fending off journalists, corporate meddlers, and anyone else trying to gain access to her research. Marina’s limbo only ends when Dr. Swenson makes a surprising and unannounced entry at the Manaus Opera House, accepting, reluctantly, Marina’s presence on her return boat trip to the research station.

In the third and final phase of the novel, Marina travels by boat with Dr. Swenson, and her adopted Hummoccan orphan, Easter, to the research lab deep in the jungle. Dr. Swenson controls every aspect of the station, and wields a palpable authority over the Lakashi natives. Dr. Swenson, while certainly an uncompromising leader, is not only dedicated to a noble humanitarian cause—the eradication of malaria–she also bears an enormous responsibility over the safety and security of the vulnerable Lakashi tribe, and the delicate ecosystem of their unique part of the Amazon. While we learn that her cover-up of Anders Eckman’s disappearance was deliberate, her decision was made not out of malevolence, but out of a need to protect the delicate ecosystem that will likely not survive if governments, corporations, tourists, and criminal elements discover the truth of its existence.

This is why the unexpected arrival of Mr. Fox, the Vogel CEO and Marina’s lover, at the Amazon research station in Chapter 10 poses such a threat to the region. Bent on obtaining the fertility drug that his company has paid Dr. Swenson to develop and deliver, his incursion, symbolizing corporate ruthlessness, environmental exploitation, and relentless profit motive puts Marina in a challenging situation, one that forces her to make critical choices, choosing between her love for Mr. Fox and the comfortable profession his company affords her, or choosing to risk her career and romance, helping Dr. Swenson’s tri-part mission to protect the Lakashi and the Martin ecosystem, and to develop a vaccine that will inoculate malaria and save millions of lives. Ultimately, Marina chooses the greater good, helping Dr. Swenson and participating in her plot to fend off Vogel and to delay the development of the fertility drug until they can secure funding.

Though Marina chooses to help Dr. Swenson’s humanitarian research mission, helping her send Mr. Fox away with what he thinks is a fertility drug (it is in fact a Malaria vaccine), she also manages to move out from under her mentor’s shadow in the final chapter, making choices that irrevocably separate her from Dr. Swenson. This final rift takes place when she discovers that Anders is in fact alive and living among the Hummocca. Unfortunately, to retrieve Anders and complete her promise to his wife, Karen, she must make a horrible exchange with his captors, the cannibalistic and highly dangerous Hummocca tribe. To reclaim Anders, she must trade her beloved Easter, whom she has started to see as a son, for Ander’s freedom.

The joyful reunion of Anders, Karen, and his boys that follows, narrated with allusions to Lakashi welcoming ceremonies, bears the ritual trappings of ceremonial return, repairing the rift of painful family separation with the elation of reunification and wholeness. Though Marina cannot repair the rift between her and her own father, the novel’s final scene, an image of a whole family bonded with mutual love, is a triumphant symbol signifying Marina’s ability to heal the wounds of her traumatic past while helping to mend the familial wounds and rifts of the present. Thus, Marina becomes not only a Doctor, but becomes the truest definition of a healer.

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Chapter 1