Bad omens pile up fast in Ann Patchett's sixth novel, which traces the Amazon adventures of 42-year-old Minnesota scientist Marina Singh. Her malaria pills arouse terrifying nightmares that leave her screaming in her sleep. Vicious insects swarm with ''unimaginable velocity into eyes and mouths and noses,'' while lethal lancehead snakes coil in the underbrush, ready to strike at any misstep. The airline loses her luggage. The local opera house even stages Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, which is based, unsubtly enough, on Orpheus' journey to hell.
More ominous still are the reasons for Marina's descent into the Brazilian wilderness. Her former teacher Dr. Annick Swenson has spent years pursuing a secret project sponsored by the company Marina works for, growing increasingly enigmatic. Has she gone rogue, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (an obvious source of inspiration)? A colleague of Marina's, sent to check on Dr. Swenson, ends up dead under mysterious circumstances. Marina agrees to retrace his path in order to find out what happened to him and, hopefully, to discover what Dr. Swenson is up to. The answers prove surprising, posing ethical and emotional questions that Marina must grapple with while confronting harsh conditions, a deadly anaconda, and her fraught past with the fascinating and difficult Dr. Swenson.
State of Wonder is as overstuffed as that all sounds, but it mostly works: The book's dreamlike claustrophobia weaves a spell even when far-fetched plot twists tip toward absurdity. Though it ultimately can't match the subtler pleasures of Patchett's previous voyage to South America, 2001's gorgeous Bel Canto, it's still a trip well worth taking. A–