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16 Books to Watch for in June 2011

A haunting novel of one man's fatal mistake, a guide to the impeccable style of Frenchwomen, and more riveting reads.
State of Wonder

State of Wonder

384 pages; Harper Perennial
Ann Patchett's new tragicomedy, State of Wonder (Harper), is perfect holiday family book-club fodder—no children or dogs die, no long-term marriages break up, and just about everybody finds an idea or two worth discussing by the fire (for example, healthcare, politics and international travel). She dares to send women into decidedly masculine territory—violence and corruption in the jungle—but with a 21st-century twist. Here the quest is not for military might but for marketplace dominance: An American pharmaceutical company hopes to develop "the equivalent of Lost Horizon  for American ovaries" to prolong fertility in aging women. Plucked from her placid Minnesota lab, Marina Singh is ordered to the Amazon to find her former mentor, doctor-turned-researcher Annick Swenson, who discovered the potential elixir but has since gone rogue (think Linda Hunt in Marlon Brando mode).

The scenes of Marina languishing in Manaus, Brazil, waiting for the elusive Dr. Swenson, offer tropical comedy filled with torpid heat, lost luggage and colorful locals. Then comes the inevitable trip up the river to a native village far from civilization where Dr. Swenson is "the uncontested kingpin," who challenges Marina, and readers, to consider the unintended consequences of choosing whether to disturb the world around us or to let it go on "as if you had never arrived." The large canvas of sweeping moral issues, both personal and global, comes to life through careful attention to details, however seemingly mundane—from ill-fitting shoes and mosquito bites to a woman tenderly braiding another woman's hair. Ultimately Marina learns to put aside her predisposition to quantify everything with scientific data, especially where affairs of the heart are concerned. "In this life we love who we love," Patchett writes. "There were some stories in which facts were very nearly irrelevant."
— Liza Nelson and Leigh Newman

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