Looking for a quick, but thoughtful read? Consider Euphoria by Lily King. A novel based loosely on the life of Margaret Mead, I give it two thumbs up!
I just finished reading the novel Euphoria by Lily King. I’m not sure it left me feeling euphoric, but it was a great novel. A short and quick read, not to mention thought provoking; I can see why it was on everyone’s list of must-read books for the summer. As an anthropologist, this novel, loosely based on the life of acclaimed (by most) cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, reminded me of the many reasons why I got into anthropology in the first place.
1. a state of intense happiness and self-confidence
2. Psychology. a feeling of happiness, confidence or well-being sometimes exaggerated in pathological states as mania
3. a novel by Lily King detailing the events surrounding a romantic love triangle involving three young anthropologists in the 1930s
Margaret Mead and her husband, Gregory Bateson, working in Papua New Guinea, 1938. (Nell Stone & Andrew Bankson in Euphoria) Image via Library of Congress
Euphoria is a novel about the pursuit of knowledge, but that may just be my interpretation. The novel is set in the 1930s and follows the lives of three young anthropologists as they find themselves, and love, along the Sepik River of the Territory of New Guinea.
The Sepik River, the longest river on the island of New Guinea. Image via B & H Chapaitis
Euphoria is primarily inspired by the life of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, but also draws on the lives and works of Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson (husbands #2 & 3, respectively). The novel touches on events in Mead’s personal life as well as professional one, yet Lily King makes the story all her own. It combines passion, fear of success and/or failure and intellectual curiosity in a way that is completely original and entirely unexpected.
Reo Fortune, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, July 1933. ( Fen, Nell & Andrew in Euphoria) Image via Library of Congress
Euphoria won the New England Book Award for Fiction in 2014 and it was well deserved. Not only was this book beautifully written, moving seamlessly from Nell’s perspective to Bankson’s, it’s also just a great story. You get to learn about various native tribes in New Guinea, while also getting inside the anthropologist’s head, and seeing what it might be like to try to "figure out" another culture.
“Brain ablaze. Feel like we are unearthing something and finding ourselves, knowing ourselves, stripping off layers of our upbringing like old paint.”
It is obvious that King did some serious background research to write this novel. She accurately depicts several New Guinean cultures and is able to expertly capture the spirit of anthropological research in the 1930s. You can feel the angst that Bankson experiences as he tries to figure out what the Wai really is, and share his joy when he is ultimately able to come to grips with the fact that his first ideas were completely wrong. (If you have a sec, check out King's website, where she provides the 411 on Euphoria and her other novels.)
“They held the Wai they had promised me. Despite all my interviews, my hundreds of questions to hundreds of Kiona about this ceremony, I had got it all wrong. I had missed the complexity of it. Part bawdy, part historical, and part tragic, the ceremony elicited a greater range of emotions than I had realized the first time round.”
I felt especially connected with Nell in this novel and was amazed (and inspired) by her dedication and also her insight. Eloquently written passages like the one below illustrate the intellectual power that was Nell and are perfect examples of the compassion and feeling with which she interpreted cultural mores.
“She told me the Tam believed that love grows in the stomach and that they went around clutching their bellies when their hearts were broken. ‘You are in my stomach’ was their most intimate expression of love.”
One of the best parts of this entire novel is an evening, that turns into a night and another day, when all three of these intelligent, but very different, anthropologists come upon a common idea simultaneously and conjointly. Anyone who has ever had that moment when you feel a “brain-connection” with another person can identify with this expertly crafted event.
“I felt like her words were pulling it out of me and at the same time my axis was pulling the words out of her. I wasn’t sure if I was having my own thoughts or hers. And yet I felt the melting ice, the sense of urgency.”
But the thing I enjoyed most about this novel was all the different ideas that it brought to mind. What was it like to be an anthropologist during this golden age, when everyone was doing fieldwork in areas that had never been studied? Everything was so fresh and new and exciting, what would that experience have really been like?
I don’t believe that the passion is gone from anthropological research today, but I know as a young academic (okay, maybe not that young) it can be intimidating when you feel like everything has already been done. How can I ever come up with a new idea? How will I ever be able to match up to the pioneering work done by anthropologists like Margaret Mead, Franz Boas and Eugene Dubois? What can I add to a field that has seen so much innovation not even in the last 100 years, but within the last 10?
Despite causing me to grapple with some of my own personal fears and insecurities, Euphoria ultimately inspired me and reminded me why anthropology is the BEST. I'll take my advice from Margaret Mead and continue to fight the good fight. Searching for what makes us unique and what ties us all together as one human race is a noble pursuit and one I am proud to be a part of, at least most of the time!
But enough about me. Everyone should read Euphoria. It’s a quick, well-written, fun read that I think everyone can enjoy; anthropologist and non-anthropologist alike!
If you’ve already read Euphoria and are wondering how much of it is factual and how much is fictional check out Lily King’s website. Or watch this video to find out more about the inspiration for Euphoria.
Please share my review if you think others might like Euphoria. Leave me comments, suggestions or thoughts below. I would love to hear what you have to say about Euphoria or any other books.
**Featured image via The Washington Post