Euphoria by Lily King is an intriguing and sophisticated novel about three anthropologists studying tribes in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. Loosely based on a real-life love triangle involving Margaret Mead, this piece of literary historical fiction offers an exhilarating mix of the cerebral and the passionate. King considers love, marriage, jealousy, as well as issues of cultural relativism and cultural imperialism.
The Story: King opens the book with a married team of anthropologists beating a hasty retreat from a violent New Guinean tribe called the Mumbanyo. As the couple departs by canoe, a tribe member throws something at them. “'Another dead baby,' Fen said. He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.”
The man and woman are Nell and Fen, clearly modeled on the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune. Nell has recently achieved fame from her work, and Fen struggles with resentment at her sudden success. Searching for another tribe to study, Nell and Fen meet up with another anthropologist, an emotionally damaged Brit by the name of Bankson (based on Mead’s real-life third husband, Gregory Bateson). The three social scientists begin an intense intellectual collaboration and, soon, fierce desires threaten the balance between them.
My Thoughts: I found Euphoria to be an interesting and deeply satisfying read. The subject, to me, was fascinating; I’ve retained an interest in anthropology since college. King thoroughly researched the lives and work of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson, and ably represents the controversies and issues in the field of anthropology in the 1930s.
But the novel isn’t completely focused on anthropology—far from it. King includes plenty of messy human emotions and complicated relationships. I think this is why the book resonated with me so much. It isn’t often that a literary novel combines big ideas with such an engrossing plot and fascinating set of characters.
Novels based on the lives of real people can be a tricky proposition. Of late, I have found some of these sorts of novels to be disappointing because, often, the writer seems constrained by the real-life trajectory of the characters’ lives. King makes the decision here to deviate from the facts of Mead’s life and create a new ending for Nell, Fen, and Bankson. I will admit that I did not particularly LIKE the ending King chose for her characters, but regardless, I appreciated the suspense of not knowing exactly what would happen.
Euphoria has been compared to Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, and Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski, all novels in which anthropology plays a central role. Of these other works, I have only read State of Wonder, and I think that Euphoria is the better novel—it is tighter and more focused than Patchett’s book. I do want to read the novels by Yanagihara and Berlinski.
I would rate Euphoria a 4 and a half out of 5 stars. I highly recommend it to those who read literary fiction.