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'Lost Horizon' for American Ovaries

Ann Patchett’s sixth novel, “State of Wonder,” poses a provocative question: If, ladies, you could preserve your fertility into your 50s, 60s or even later, would you?

“State of Wonder” is a quest story with a modern twist. In the classic quest structure, as outlined most famously by Joseph Campbell, the hero is called to find a missing treasure that carries great power: a grail, a fountain of youth, a magic ring or, here, perpetual fertility.

In this novel, our heroine is a 42-year-old cholesterol researcher named Marina Singh, who is ambivalent about having children. She ventures into the Amazon at the behest of her employer, a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical firm, Vogel. The company has been secretly supporting an eccentric scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, who has discovered an Amazonian tribe, the Lakashi, whose women can bear children until they die.

“The rest of their body goes along its path to destruction,” one of the characters explains, “while the reproductive system stays daisy fresh. This is the end of IVF. No more expense, no more shots that don’t end up working, no more donor eggs and surrogates. … Imagine someone offering you the equivalent of ‘Lost Horizon’ for American ovaries. … Put off your reproductive decisions for as long as you want. We’re not talking 45, we’re talking 50, 60, maybe beyond that. You can always have children.”

The secret seems to lie in the bark of a particular tree that the Lakashi women chew. Swenson is supposed to be isolating the fertility substance and developing it into a drug for Vogel. Problem is, Swenson has gone incommunicado. Vogel is eager to market this drug, sure to be a bonanza. To check on Swenson’s progress, Vogel already sent down one researcher—Anders Eckman, an enthusiastic family man and Marina’s research partner. He allegedly died of fever.

Marina goes to the Amazon on behalf of Anders’ wife, who doesn’t believe he’s really dead. She goes because Anders was a friend. She goes because the president of Vogel, Mr. Fox, is her secret lover, albeit a boring man who is 18 years her senior.

book cover

State of Wonder

By Ann Patchett

Harper, 368 pages

Buy the book

If Marina doesn’t sound very thrilling as a person, you’re right. The traditional quest story requires a resistant, ordinary kind of hero, and she’s no adventurer. She’s the type who “had been a very good student, but she only raised her hand when she was certain of the answer.” That dutiful girl is now about to head into no man’s land in search of treasure.

Such tales always have a shadowy, dangerous figure guarding the treasure: Swenson, I presume. The hero must get past gatekeepers, in this case a bohemian artist/surfer couple who guard access to Swenson’s whereabouts. A sidekick usually arrives to help—a mysterious, faithful, brilliant deaf-mute boy that Swenson named Easter since he arrived suddenly in the Lakashi village on the holiday. One of the best characters in the novel, he is the magical child, another archetype.

Once allowed in—once Marina is headed down the Rio Negro into the tribal territory—the hero faces obstacles: a battle with a 15-foot anaconda, a heck of a lot of bugs and the massive jungle itself. There are even neighboring cannibals.

In the mysterious land, the hero must adapt, gathering lessons along the way. Patchett describes the Lakashi vividly: their hair braiding, fire rituals, frequent touching and the women’s loose smocks: “Among the female Lakashi all clothes were maternity clothes.” Marina’s own clothing is stolen, and the women dress her in a smock. And terrified at first of the river, that “murky soup” where “there was no telling what was coming at you,” Marina begins to enjoy swimming in it.

To see long excerpts from “State of Wonder” at Google Books, click here.

I won’t detail the last third of the novel, but it follows the formula to the end. The sought-after treasure will prove to be different—better, wiser, more powerful, also more dangerous—than what the hero and those who sent her on the journey had believed. The voyage will require a terrible sacrifice. Finally, the hero will return home, possessing new wisdom or a gift.

Many reviewers have compared this novel to “Heart of Darkness,” but other than the jungle and some shady medical ethics, “State of Wonder” is nothing like Joseph Conrad’s book. The darkness of Patchett’s novel belongs not to the jungle but to our modern world, especially the corporate goal of profit above all else. A motley cohort of four other scientists working with Swenson has discovered something else in the tree bark, a substance that could “have enormous benefits to world health,” the doctor says, though “no financial benefits for company shareholders.” Except for some notable slips in medical ethics (experimenting on unsuspecting Lakashis for the sake of the rest of the world), the scientists are on the side of poor people. As Swenson puts it, they don’t see “any harm in making an American pharmaceutical company pay” for something that could help impoverished people while developing a fertility drug that “will, if anything, undermine the health of women and make [the company] a truly obscene fortune.”
The novel asks if we, the “first world,” should be spending billions to develop drugs that might let us have it all (whether that’s a baby in our 60s or, maybe, a life span of 100-plus) when that money could save the lives of millions of existing children in the developing world. In April, a British fertility clinic announced a new technique using liquid nitrogen that allows women to flash-freeze their eggs, a more viable method than the slower-freezing methods of the past. In the U.K.’s Daily Mail, the clinic director said that if women “freeze their eggs at the age of 30, then those eggs will stay that age forever, so they can have a baby even at the age of 50 with no greater chance of miscarriage or Down syndrome than they had at 30.”

Here is what Patchett’s straight-talking Swenson would say about that: “Perhaps instead of trying to reproduce themselves, these postmenopausal women who want to be mothers could adopt up some of the excess [children] that surely will be available.”

The novel explicitly portrays the difficulty of childbearing for an older woman. Maybe the ovaries would keep working, but how about the hips? The bladder? What about sheer exhaustion? Marina suspects there is something addictive in the “fenneled bark” that “kept the Lakashi women trudging back to the trees long after they were sick to death of babies.”

book cover

State of Wonder

By Ann Patchett

Harper, 368 pages

Buy the book

There is indeed a narcotic quality to the Lakashi tree bark, maybe not unlike the American addiction to “having it all,” the delusion that all desires must be fulfilled. Even when we know better, our thoughts gnaw at what we don’t have.

Endless possibility is lovely. The secret grove of the elixir of fertility is the most enduring image in the novel. Picture an airy stand of tall trees with “buttery yellow” bark and pale oval leaves sprouting from branches high above the ground. Flitting about in the dappled light are lavender moths, which lay their eggs in the bark. The trees and moths are found nowhere else in the world. The key to fertility lies in the combination of the moth larvae and the bark.

Unless they are pregnant, the Lakashi women come to this grove to gnaw on the trees. Of course, Marina imbibes. The fruitful bark, which is “nearly soft, yielding. It offered up the slightest amount of pulpy liquid that tasted of fennel and rosemary. …” Toward the end of the novel, she’s hooked. “She wanted to stuff herself with the bark, to turn herself into medical evidence before she went home. Her goal was to make up for all the bark she hadn’t eaten in the past and anticipate the bark she would never eat in the future.”

Alas, she doesn’t try the magic mushrooms. Even more potent than the Bodhi tree bark of boundless babies are the glowing, blue mushrooms, “each cap a perfect golf ball on a tall, slender stem,” growing prolifically at the base of the trunks. “Your passport to spiritual enlightenment,” one of the scientists says in describing the blue caps, central to Lakashi rituals. They too grow only in this grove and can’t be grown in a lab, not even in the same soil.

To see long excerpts from “State of Wonder” at Google Books, click here.

One of the reasons Swenson and the others keep secret the location of their research is these mushrooms. “This place would be overrun,” says one of the scientists, “drug dealers, the Brazilian government, other tribes, German tourists, there’s no telling who would get here first and what sort of war would ensue. … [T]he Lakashi would be destroyed.”

We of the civilized world, Patchett seems to say, are pretty barbaric when it comes to getting what we want.

This is a rich novel with many fun twists and lots of questions about desire, entitlement, ethics, childbearing and the limits of nature and technology. Fertility bark? Maybe not. But about those blue mushrooms. …

Cherilyn Parsons
Contributor
Cherilyn Parsons is a writer who lives in Berkeley, Calif. She has published feature stories and essays in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Online Journalism Review, New York Newsday, and…
Cherilyn Parsons

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