Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on June 3rd 2014
Source: Library Book
From New England Book Award winner Lily King comes a breathtaking novel about three young anthropologists of the '30s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives.
English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field for several years, studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with colleagues, the controversial Nell Stone and her wry and mercurial Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just fled the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s poor health, are hungry for a new discovery. When Bankson finds them a new tribe nearby, the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control.
I recently joined my local library’s book club and I wanted to go ahead and start a feature here where I review the books we read.
I liked Euphoria, which surprised me. I have no interest in Anthropology, and I can honestly say that hanging out in Papa New Guinea without running water and modern day conveniences is not at all my idea of a dream job. But that’s why I love reading, because a good story can suddenly suck you in and make you care about subjects you never dreamed could be interesting.
The characters of the book are based on real life people. Nell is based on Margaret Mead- a woman who was truly ahead of her times. Brilliant and bold, Nell, like Mead, is fluid in her sexuality and dedicated to her research. Nell’s husband Ren is based off of Mead’s second husband Reo Fortune, although it’s this character that is probably the most changed by fiction, and Bankson is based on Gregory Bateson. The three form a strange love triangle (both in the book and in real life).
The story is told through mostly Bankson’s pov, but Nell is there in 3rd person and journal entries. While it was easy to relate to Bankson, who’s introduction to us in through a unsuccessful suicide attempt immediately grabbed my attention, it was Nell who fascinated me. The book is set in the 1930’s, a time when women with careers was still a novelty. Like Mead, Nell has just published a highly successful and controversial book, and her name is well known in scientific circles. She’s taken both male and female lovers before marrying Ren after a whirl wind ship romance. But it’s soon clear that their marriage is in trouble. Enter into the picture Bankson, who’s presence seems to add spark to both Ren and Nell.
The three characters quickly become entwined, and at some point I could not put the book down. I absolutely loved the ending. I don’t read a lot of literary fiction (a reason that I joined the book club, actually), because I find some of it to be pretentious, but while the writing is good here, it’s not bogged down with too much detail.
What the Book Club Thought
Euphoria had mixed reviews- some of us liked it and a couple members hated it. Some thought that King had done a great job bringing Papa New Guinea of the 1930’s into life, while some thought that the book could have delved more into the setting and the tribes that the characters were studying (I personally wanted to know more about the Tam, which I thought would have a larger role to play). Ren’s character was universally despised.
The librarian who led the discussion passed around pictures of the three real life people who inspired the book- up to a certain point, since the ending varies wildly from real life. We also discussed King’s background and research. We discussed Mead’s rather scandalous history- married several times, lovers of both sexes, controversial books and research, hardly the typical woman of her time!- and were all impressed at the life she forged for herself.
My favorite part of the discussion was about a plot point that several members missed while reading the book- it happens at the end and it’s only a few sentences, but it’s a major book bomb. When I brought it up, only one other reader had caught it, so it was fun diving into that chapter (chapter 28 for those of you who plan to read it), and it started off a lively discussion of how that changes the story.
What We’re Reading Next
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride