A customer recommended this book to me as I was ringing it up for her. She bought several copies to give as gifts because she said it was just phenomenal. Naturally, I thought, Hey, I gotta get me some of this. Maybe it’s because I built it up in my mind as being super awesome, but it was a little less awesome than I thought it would be. It was still good. Ann Patchett’s prose is lovely, but it wasn’t give-copies-to-all-of-my-friends-for-Christmas good.
Marina and Anders are lab partners at a massive pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. When Marina finds out that Anders, who months before traveled to the Amazon, has died of a nameless fever, she journeys to the very place where he lived out his last months. Her mission, for her own sake and for the sake of Anders’ wife, is to discover what exactly happened, how he spent his last moments, and what happened to his body. While she is there, however, she discovers a lot about herself and what she truly wants for her life.
The premise had potential, but when Marina discovers what the doctors are working on in the Amazon, the research they are doing, and the drug they are attempting to develop, the novel takes a turn for the bizarre and the far-fetched. It is reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, both in that the forest is a living entity with evil intent toward outsiders, and that the forest people are somewhat inferior to “civilized” people. The jungle seems to change according to its own will, closing paths that once existed and opening new ones where none were before. At first the natives that Marina and her fellow doctors live with sometimes seemed more like domesticated pets than human beings. Other tribes were more wild and would like nothing more than to put an arrow through any and every stranger. Slightly less off-putting than the whiffs of racism, but perplexing nonetheless, is the truly odd project that Marina’s employer is funding, and the hard-assed doctor who is its leader.
I don’t want to give it away. There are secrets and surprises that are necessary for enjoying the novel. But there was also something strained about it. The events are too far beyond the realm of possibility. It is classified as fiction, but its element of fantasy is just a little too strong. That said, it at times feels more like an acid trip than true fantasy or simple literature.
A good many parts of it were enjoyable. Ann Patchett’s characters are fully developed and enjoyable. Her prose is simple but elegant, and the novel is deeply emotional, as it deals with the connections and relationships between human beings in spite of age, language, and lifestyle barriers. Though Marina does not enjoy Brazil–in fact, she fears it greatly–Patchett’s descriptions of the ugliness of Manaus and the filth of the river are somehow beguilingly beautiful. Whether it’s an accurate picture she paints I cannot say, but it certainly is easy to picture in the mind’s eye.
Due to its being well outside the realm of what I normally read, I did enjoy the novel. Though the plot is a bit weak, other aspects like setting and character development are strong enough to hold up the book. Like I said, not Christmas gift or rave review worthy, but a decent read nonetheless.