Just after finishing Divisadero, I immediately found myself missing Hope Davis’ voice – she who so lullingly narrated Michael Ondaatje’s dream-like bifurcated drama. So what a comforting surprise to click on Ann Patchett‘s Wonder and find Davis’ voice gently streaming out of my headset! Serendipity indeed!
As the daughter of a foreign graduate student father who deserted his Caucasian American wife and hapa child after finishing his degree, Marina Singh’s family situation merits one of the best quips in the book, comparing her personal background to “the stuff of presidential history.” Her separation from her Indian father looms large, forever haunting her unconscious, exacerbated to the point of blood-curdling nightmares especially when she ingests anti-malarial drugs, which she must during her few visits to Calcutta as a young child.
Now in her early 40s, Dr. Singh – a pharmaceutical researcher of mundane anti-cholesterol drugs – is back on the same mind-altering prescription and nightly screaming herself awake (and anyone else within shrieking distance). Her bland boss, Mr. Fox, who also happens to be her noncommittal lover too many years her senior, surprises her with the news that she’s being sent to Brazil, ostensibly in search of further details about her colleague who has reportedly died of a mysterious fever out in the field.
More importantly, Mr. Fox needs a concrete update on the company’s Amazon-based, high-expense-but-not-yet-delivering project on fertility drugs, headed by the legendary Dr. Annick Swenson. Unfortunately, Singh’s aborted OB/GYN career is directly linked to her past relationship with Swenson, which ended almost two decades earlier. Already frought with difficult memories and nightmares before she even embarks, Singh’s journey proves to be a ‘heart of darkness’-like odyssey, both wondrous and shattering, redemptive and damning.
Patchett’s latest title is an uneven mix of soap opera antics (the younger woman falling for her older mentor figure recurs no less than three times, not to mention Dr. Swenson bearing a spooky resemblance to Meredith Grey’s steely mother on Grey’s Anatomy of all shows!), and high cultural aspirations (Heart of Darkness, Lost Horizon, opera). Most disturbingly, I couldn’t shake the undertones of western colonial superiority – that sense of everything outside is crumbling, backward, lacking, literally requiring mind-altering inoculations in order to survive out there. And to make the protagonist so clearly hapa, so distinctly teetering in the middle of two worlds, left me just as unbalanced as to how to ultimately react …