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Review: Euphoria

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars

Euphoria, by Lily King (2014)

This is the upcoming Writers & Books Turning Pages Readers Circle book. Turning Pages is a membership level at W&B where members receive four surprise books in the mail per year, followed by book discussions lead by either the individual who chose the book for the group, or someone else who has a unique perspective to offer in relation to it. Euphoria, a work of historical fiction, was chosen for Turning Pages by local poet Lindsay Bernal. (Humble brag: I used to run the program, so it's near and dear to my heart.)

Loosely based on and inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, the novel re-imagines a brief time period of her life when she and two other anthropologists, based on Mead's first and second husbands, met and collaborated along the Sepik River in New Guinea. The ultimate outcomes of this meeting are changed and fictionalized, but the love triangle story, and the descriptions of the work itself are realistic and un-idealized.

These three observers of New Guinea tribes - Nell (Margaret Mead), her husband Fen (Reo Fortune), and Andrew Bankson (Gregory Bateson) - have different interests, different approaches to their work, and varying levels of success in connecting with and understanding the people they're studying. Nell is methodical and meticulous, taking copious notes and following what seems like a tried-and-true approach to gaining the trust of the locals. She also has an innate belief in the shared human experience (a trait I gather was not altogether common in her day and age of research). When Bankson comments, "You're assuming analytical abilities that I'm not sure they possess," Nell emphatically replies,"They are human, with fully functioning human minds. If I didn't believe they shared my humanity entirely, I wouldn't be here. I'm not interested in zoology."

Bankson is despondent and suicidal when he meets up with Nell and Fen. He has made very little headway with his own tribe, finding the people evasive and distrusting, though we learn through watching Nell work that he isn't actually very skilled at, ya know, talking to the locals (or at least not when he's severely depressed). Bankson is desperate to keep Nell and Fen in New Guinea, to feed off of their creative energy (or at least off of Nell's), and watching them (her) work does seems to bring the spark back to life for him.

Fen, meanwhile, basically goes off the rails, immersing himself deeply into the masculine activities and rituals of the tribe, becoming secretive and jealous, and obsessive about a certain totem he saw once with another tribe. There are hints that he has been abusive with Nell in the past. It takes some time, but we do eventually see why she fell for him in the first place, and there are still glimmers of the humor and the creative collaboration that brought them together and (maybe?) made them good for each other, for a while at least.

In one frantic night of collective brainstorming, the three come together to create a system that maps out cultures according to their character traits, which they call "the Grid" (apparently at least somewhat similar to a cultural map developed by Mead, Fortune, and Bateson). But the euphoria of this night can't outlast their fundamental differences (or their competitive natures).

I enjoyed the story itself, but upon reflection the passages I loved the most were about the pursuit of knowledge through the study of human behavior. I don't know how realistic Nell's thoughts are to a "real anthropologist" (Margaret Mead, or otherwise), but the way she describes the process and the approach rang true for me. For instance, in the following passage:

"No one [has] more than one perspective, even in the so-called hard sciences. We’re always, in everything we do in this world, limited by subjectivity. But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl. . . . The key is to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is ‘natural.’ ”

The novel is smart, captivating, and suspenseful. I'll be interested to check out her new novel, set to come out in March, called Writers & Lovers.


(Photo above: The book with a W&B bookmark promoting their new indie bookstore. If you haven't been to W&B, or haven't been in a few months, go check it out! Refinished floors, fresh coat of paint, and a lot of really good books.)


UP NEXT: Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love & Loss, by Margaret Renkl

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