I must have read Ann Patchett's previous Orange prizewinner Bel Canto several years ago. And I was impressed. The story was unsettling, but it was gripping and well written, and I think the same is almost exactly true of State of Wonder. Whilst not my absolute favourite of the 18 Orange longlisters I've read so far, I'll reserve that for Island of Wings, State of Wonder is the one that I think most likely to win the Orange prize. (Still have The Blue Book, Tides of War and The night circus to go...)
It tells the story of the researcher Dr Swenson. She is in the Brazilian Jungle undertaking research into a potentially life-changing drug, funded by a drugs company. But she shrouds her research in mystery and fails to provide updates on how the research is progressing, so a man from the company, Anders Eckman is sent to investigate. This departure is followed a few months later by an abrupt letter from Swenson announcing that he is dead and buried in the Jungle. His widow is devastated and desperate to know what happened, so another colleague, Marina is sent off to see if she can find out the details, and is also persuaded to speak to Swenson about her progress.
Aside from the plot, it's a fascinating read with insight into the tribes in the jungle and their interactions with Swenson and outsiders. It's difficult to think of a world like this still existing in the twentieth century.
I was sucked into the story and desperately turning the pages to find out what happened, but at the same time I didn't want to read it too fast as I was enjoying the descriptions of a world of which I knew very little - jungles, medical reseach... I did not expect the ending at all, but it pleased me in some ways and showed also that the pace of the book did not let up right until the end.