If it's not hot enough for you this summer, join Ann Patchett for a trip into the Amazon, where moths have wings the size of handkerchiefs. Just watch out for the malaria, the cannibals and the obsessed doctor.
In "State of Wonder" (Harper, $26.99), Patchett sends Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher, on that nightmarish journey, in search of the remains of a former colleague, and of the truth about a possible miracle fertility drug.
Some early reviewers have likened the book to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." "Everybody's looking for a catchphrase," Patchett said in an interview. "It's 'Heart of Darkness' about women." The main influence on this book, she said, was Werner Herzog, particularly his films "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," both about obsessives and both set in the unforgiving Amazon.
Patchett made a research voyage into the Amazon, on Gourmet magazine's dime. She spent the first half of the journey on a boat. "I like being on the river," she said. She felt differently about her stay in a jungle lodge: "It was very claustrophobic. The jungle just smashes you. You can't catch your breath." She said she was glad, for the sake of the book, that she "stayed to the point where I was miserable."
Marina Singh's misery in "State of Wonder" isn't all caused by the jungle. Some comes from her encounter with the imperious Dr. Annick Swenson, who is pursuing the fertility drug in the Amazon and who was once her obstetrics instructor. A medical crisis in the jungle forces Singh to confront a failure in her student past.
"I wanted to write a book about a grown-up student who encounters a teacher later in life," Patchett said. "I have had teachers who completely shaped who I am."
Patchett, who is happily childless by choice, calls her novel a cautionary tale about the desire for endless fertility.
"Everyone seems to think you don't have to make a choice [about having children]. You can freeze your eggs, decide to have children later."
In "State of Wonder," fertility is stretched way beyond the normal human span. People get their wish, Patchett said, but it isn't pretty.
In a book world that is hungry for good news, Patchett caused a stir recently when she announced plans to open a bookstore in Nashville, Tenn., where she lives. She and business partner Karen Hayes, an experienced Random House sales rep, plan to open Parnassus Books this year.