Anna Patchett 2012 State of Wonder. Bloomsbury

The Big Battalions of the international pharmaceutical industry will stop at nothing in their pursuit of profit, right? And megalomaniac scientists living in ethics-free zones are the ones who call the shots, yeah? And the mysterious and exotic green hinterland of the virgin rain forest contains the cures to all the ills of humankind – obviously.

If you can (at least temporarily) embrace these old soggy-left chestnuts, then Ann Patchett’s Orange Prize nominated pot-boiler might be just right for that flight to your next conference. Just don’t expect Flaubert (or even McEwen). But do expect a rattling good tale told by someone who has bothered to do at least a little bit of Wikipedia research about the different phases of a clinical trial.

Now I’m not one for spoilers, so I’m not going to give away any of the fast moving action. But the ‘cast list’ is well worth a brief run-down. All of your old favourites are here. The autocratic, bigheaded, no nonsense, over-focused “scientist” swatting away the Lilliputian concerns of the Helsinki Declaration. The air-headed but self-seeking Northern Hemisphere hippy types. The child-like, intangibly pure and still unspoilt-by-western-culture Amazonian Indians. And, of course, our young (ish?) Yankee heroine with her somewhat inexplicable romantic attachment to her rather dull drug company exec boss.

For a not-very-literary train/’plane read, Patchett’s book touches on a surprising range of big issues. Motherhood and fertility are constant themes, with the ticking of the ‘biological clock’ an almost audible accompaniment throughout. Contemporary concerns over grandma-aged mums get a light grilling, as do ‘western’ constructions of the idea of childhood and the on-going threat to the viability of village life among indigenous South Americans.

Readers with Amazonian experience might cringe a bit at the clichéd portrayal of the dark, threatening, teeming, inscrutable forest (yawn) – just as those with detailed drug research knowledge will find some of the scientists and their antics somewhat far-fetched. But it’s a holiday thriller for gawd’s sake, not a textbook. Although, having said that, the basics of research ethics get such an enjoyable airing that teachers of A level or undergrad classes might want to think about putting it on the reading list – just for a bit of fun.

So, in a (Brazil) nutshell, it’s not a particularly challenging read and you probably won’t remember it forever – but it is a pretty likeable yarn.

Further information

Review of: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (26 April 2012)
ISBN-10: 1408821885
ISBN-13: 978-1408821886
(Also available in hardback and Kindle editions, natch)