Eckman had been sent down to monitor the program's progress under the formidable Dr. Annick Swensen (who may have gone rogue and at least is no longer returning the company's calls). Dr. Swensen was at one time Marina's mentor – although Marina's residency ended with her vowing never to treat a patient again. Marina is under no illusions that Swensen will be happy to see her – or even remember her failed pupil. (This is way worse than showing up at a 10-year college reunion to find that your favorite teacher, the one who changed your life, has no idea who you are.) Mentors and rebirth are two themes that resonate throughout the novel, and Patchett also includes echoes of Dickens, Henry James, and “Orpheus and Eurydice.”
Marina is skeptical about the miracle drug and the hidden Amazon tribe where grandmothers are said to routinely give birth. (“I don't care how primitive these women are, if they understood what they were doing that was causing them to remain fertile unto death they'd stop doing it,” she tells Fox.) She's going, she tells herself, because Eckman's widow, Karen, begged her to. Karen can't believe her husband is really dead based on Swensen's tersely worded note and can't in good conscience leave her three boys.
Anytime you have a hero heading up a river into a jungle in search of a reclusive figure, “Heart of Darkness” is immediately going to spring to mind. (Also, when the brilliant recluse is hiding out in South America, “The Mosquito Coast.”)
But when she finally finds her, the 73-year-old Swensen doesn't exactly look like a Kurtz. “The woman who had fixed the course of Marina's life looked for all the world like somebody's Swedish grandmother on a chartered tour of the Amazon.”
Not only doesn't Swensen suffer fools, she has no time for people of above-average intelligence either. She is, however, given to dry pronouncements, such as: “It is said the sesta is one of the only gifts the Europeans brought to South America, but I imagine the Brazilians could have figured out how to sleep in the afternoon without having to endure centuries of murder and enslavement,” and “I prefer to sit on a box. A box doesn't protect one from the roaches, but I like to think it sends a message: We are on another level.”