At the beginning of State of Wonder, Dr. Marina Singh, 42, learns that a colleague at the Minnesota drug company where she works died in the Brazilian rain forest where he was sent to check up on some top-secret research. Marina allows the president of the company, who also happens to be her lover, to talk her into going to Brazil to find out what happened to him. Thus begins an account of an arduous and terrifying trip upriver, obviously inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, to confront a brilliant and possibly mad scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, whose research could make the drug company a fortune, if she ever agrees to turn over the results. Annick had been one of Marina's medical school professors and still intimidates her. Still, Marina finally locates her, and encounters scientific evidence so unbelievable she can barely pull herself away, even though the jungle torments and terrifies her.
In State of Wonder, Ann Patchett, author of the best-selling Bel Canto and other novels, conjures a world both vividly real and slightly surreal. Marina's first encounter with the Lakashi Indians, for example, takes place in total darkness, as the boat carrying her and her reluctant companions approaches a river landing where menacing figures bear torches and shout to them. Yet, Patchett depicts village life in such detail that these the strange customs of these people start to seem utterly normal. But the ordinary mixes with the unimaginable for Marina. The Lakashi turn out to be peaceful, but members of a nearby tribe are famous for their poison arrows, and are reputed to be cannibals. The chocolate brown river provides food for the villagers, but also harbors deadly predators. (After delivering a baby, Marina is warned not to bathe in the river while wearing her bloody clothes.) And a 15-foot anaconda plucked from the river nearly squeezes the life out of the deaf Indian boy who has attached himself to Marina during her visit. But Patchett also endows this adventure tale with moments of transcendence in which Marina conquers old fears and finds a direction for her life that would have seemed impossible to her at the start of the journey.
A simple shortbread made with ground Brazil nuts provides a tasty accompaniment for a discussion of this book, which is set mostly in a jungle village where food is so primitive that a can of Coca-Cola is considered indescribably exotic by the Indians.
If you're not up to baking, try to find brigadeiros, a Brazilian dessert that consists of chocolate balls rolled in chocolate sprinkles, granulated sugar, chopped nuts or shredded coconut. If you can't locate brigadeiros, any rich, creamy chocolate confection will do.
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an email to email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.