I love when books teach me new things or inspire me to learn more about a subject. I equally love it when I can “connect the dots” between books. That was just what happened last week when I read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. The first two thirds of the book read wonderfully, the writing is smooth and the story is interesting. I found the last third a bit disappointing, and I was ready to dismiss the story as unbelievable. But then I remembered David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Suddenly, State of Wonder seemed a little less “out there.”
In State of Wonder, Dr. Annik Swenson is working in the Amazon with a tribe where women don’t undergo menopause. They are able to bear children well into old age. Dr. Swenson has kept the pharmaceutical company that pays for her research in the dark about how close she is to developing a drug that would extend the child-bearing age for women in the first world. So Marina Singh, a research scientist and former student of Dr. Swenson’s, is sent to Brazil to find out the details. She also wants to know what exactly happened to her friend, who had set out on the same mission before her but died in the jungle. Marina eventually finds Dr. Swenson and discovers that the tribe’s women can get pregnant for most of their lives because they regularly chew on trees that are part of a unique micro-ecosystem. There is, of course, more to the story, but this is the point where I started to stumble. People who chew on trees?
The Lost City of Z is David Grann’s wonderful account of legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett. In the early 20th century, Fawcett led a number of expeditions into the Amazon, helping to map a nearly inaccessible part of the world. While everyone around him either got disgustingly sick or almost starved to death, Fawcett seemed invincible. In 1925, he ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of the fabled City of Z and was never heard from again. In the search for Fawcett, a good number of people died, and even Grann, in his attempt to unravel the mystery of what happened to Fawcett, had to admit that the Amazonian jungle—though smaller in square mileage—has lost little of its danger over the last 100 years.
In State of Wonder, I really liked Dr. Swenson. She is a fierce and determined person with a no-nonsense attitude that borders on rudeness. She has given her life to science and research, with seemingly no regret. Unlike other characters, she came to life in this book. In The Lost City of Z, there is a researcher much like her. Grann had a hard time finding him, because he worked deep in the jungle, with little contact to the outside world. Grann also tells of reclusive and combative tribes that don’t hesitate to attack strangers—much like the hostile tribe in State of Wonder. Dr. Swenson and her fellow researchers have to rely on canned food supplies while the natives are doing just fine. Patchett doesn’t give us any details, but Grann describes many unique ways in which native tribes get their food. While he didn’t mention anyone who chews on trees, if he had, I probably would not have dismissed it as silly.
The parallels between the two books helped me accept a concept in State of Wonder that seemed a bit outlandish at first. With Grann’s account in mind, I could even imagine a patch of “magic trees” somewhere in the jungle. The last 30 pages in State of Wonder wrapped everything up in a way that seemed much too rushed and way too neat, but I am still looking forward to reading Patchett’s Bel Canto, which, like State of Wonder, is part of my Women’s Price Project.