That guy, Anders Eckman, had been sent into the region a few months prior to try to find another Vogel scientist, also an ex-OBGYN, named Annick Swenson. Swenson had been embedded with a local tribe for over a decade working to develop a fertility drug for the company, and had recently quit communicating with the bosses back at the mother ship. Eager to find out the status of her extremely exciting research (the tribe’s women were able to get pregnant well into their 70s, and Swenson thought she could develop a drug that prolonged the fertile years for white ladies as well — a sort of “‘Lost Horizon’ for American ovaries,” as one character describes it), Vogel sent Eckman to find out what was going on.
Eckman managed to find Swenson, but shortly after arriving in the village, he came down with a mysterious fever and died. At least, that’s according to the vague and somewhat terse letter Swenson sent Marina after his death. Though Swenson makes it clear in the letter she doesn’t want anybody else coming by to interfere with her project, Vogel isn’t about to just let her disappear into the trees with their funding, so they put Marina on a plane to Brazil to try again to track her down.
After a long journey, plagued with horrible nightmares caused by her anti-malarial medication, and a lengthy delay in Brazil waiting for Dr. Swenson to come get her and take her to the research camp, Marina finally begins to learn what really happened to Eckman, and the novel’s story launches into an exciting mix of jungle adventure, science, and fascinating details of the culture of various Amazon tribespeople. Once Marina comes face-to-face with Swenson, whom we learn is her medical mentor back from her residency days as an OB (a mentor who challenged her to the extreme and eventually led to her decision to leave the field after a terrible surgical accident), the characters and their relationships blossom and intensify. After that, there’s really no setting the book down again until you’re done. (A rare feeling, and a wonderful one, that inability to stop reading until you’ve turned the final page!)
This book is not only extremely engaging, it’s also beautifully written. I was impressed by Patchett’s talent for description from the very first chapter, when Marina receives the letter about her friend Anders and Patchett writes of her response, “There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.” That sentence — whoosh — if you can’t feel the sensation it describes by reading it, it’s only because you haven’t experienced real grief yet yourself (you lucky).
The end of the novel features a sudden twist I confess I wasn’t fully on board with, but unlike most stories about white people in places they don’t belong, it thankfully doesn’t end in terrible tragedy (which may be a spoiler, I suppose, but it’s something I would want to know, so I’m giving it to you anyway, and in any case, it’s not completely accurate, it’s just that it’s also not completely inaccurate — you’ll see what I mean when you get there!).
Highly, highly recommend this one to anyone who loves a good adventure tale, especially one that’s as thoughtful as it is entertaining! This was my first Patchett experience, after reading praise of her work for years — I’m definitely sold and will be checking out more! Have you read any of her other books? Any you would particularly recommend? Tell me which and why!
NOTE: The comments on this post contain plot spoilers! You have been warned!