Oh, this book. I just finished it this morning and although I hardly ever write a review immediately, this one made me want to. I won the book in a giveaway a while back from Marg at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and really wanted to read it at the time, but it somehow kept getting pushed back down my TBR pile. I finally justified reading it this month because September’s theme in the Around the World in 12 Books challenge is the country of Brazil, where the majority of the story takes place.
The heroine of the story is Marina Singh, a pharmacologist who works in the lab of a major drug company. When her co-worker, Anders, is reported dead while at a development site in Brazil, Marina is asked to go down and find out what happened. Except the site is in the middle of the Amazonian jungle and the only contact there is Marina’s former medical school professor whom she hasn’t seen in 15 years, a terrifyingly brilliant woman named Dr. Swenson.
I’ll admit to being a bit of an Ann Patchett fangirl, although her fiction has been hit or miss for me. She writes beautifully but I’m not always crazy about the directions she takes and the results can be a bit uneven. My favorite book of hers previously was Truth and Beauty, her non-fiction account of her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy.
But this book just does everything right. Admittedly, it has a bit of a slow start, and Marina comes across as slightly passive and bland in the first third of the book. Upon reflection, I have to think that this was a conscious decision by Patchett because it sets up a strong contrast between Marina before and Marina during her time in Brazil, when she really comes into her own. The characters and situations that Patchett establishes in this setting that is somewhere between a dream and a nightmare are fascinating, and like Marina I was completely caught up in their world.
Then there’s the love story. Although we never see them together, the relationship that exists between Anders and his wife, Karen, is expressed through the letters that he has written to her during his time in Brazil. The letters themselves are beautiful–“Such is your courage. Such is my good fortune.”–but the fact that Dr. Swenson’s adopted son leaves them for Marina as a sign of their own increasing attachment (although not a romantic one) is so touching.
There are several twists and turns in the plot that I definitely didn’t see coming and one that I did but appreciated anyway. This is a lovely book–well-written, gripping, and ultimately very meaningful. Highly recommended.