Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Euphoria: Anthropologists in Love

An anthropologist love triangle in 1930s New Guinea? Lily King's novel Euphoria sounded a bit too soap-opera-ey for me — not exactly a novel in my reading wheelhouse. And so it took me a lot to talk myself into trying it. But the avalanche of accolades (NBCC finalist, NY Times Top 10 book of 2014, bestseller in paperback) and finding a super-cheap, new-condition paperback in a used bookstore finally tilted me over the edge. 

It's a fascinating read loosely based on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. In the novel, the Mead character is named Nell — she's recently married to an Australian anthropologist named Fen, who we slowly learn feels threatened in his masculinity by her success. She's published a much-read, if somewhat controversial book, and has become something of a science celebrity. He, however, is an unknown. And while the two seem to work well together, they often come to very different conclusions regarding what they're studying. And this begins to become bothersome for Nell.

When the novel opens, we see them leaving the tribe they'd been studying to attend a Christmas Eve party. There, they meet another somewhat famous anthropologist named Bankson, who has just tried to kill himself by walking into the river with rocks in his pocket. But he was fished out by the natives, and now has a new lease on life. He's desperately lonely, and so he talks Nell and Fen into staying in New Guinea, even recommending a new tribe along the same river for them to study. Nell and Fen again throw themselves into their work, but when Bankson comes to visit to check on their progress, he realizes he's already starting to have strong feelings for Nell. And Nell is becoming more and more disillusioned with her husband and his work ethic. How will the three deal with their difficult feelings for each other, their work, and the tribes they're studying?

This slim, deceptively complex novel takes on some weighty issues in regards to gender relations, cultural relativism, and the balances of "power" in any relationship. The title refers to Nell's moment when she feels like she truly understands the culture of the people she's studying. But she realizes her euphoria is false, because much like in her own relationships, you never really reach an end-point of total understanding. Relationships are constantly evolving.

King handles the complexities and themes of this great novel with a subtle, deft hand, trusting her reader to puzzle them out for him or herself. And that's ultimately why I enjoyed it — it's a really smart book that challenges its readers to give it more than just cursory thought. 


  1. We're reading this next year for book club (we're teachers so we pick the next year's selections before summer break), and I'm pretty interested.

    1. Great book club book - demands to be discussed!