By Lily King. A romantic and intelligent page-turner.
Story: Diane Dean
“Euphoria,” written by award-winning author Lily King, is a historical novel based on Margaret Mead’s experiences in the 1930s in New Guinea. The story revolves around Margaret’s anthropological study of the tribes there, but it also is a love story. The New York Times book review called it “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace—a love triangle in extremis.”
Margaret’s work was not considered scholarly. However, she published two books, “Coming of Age in Samoa” and “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies,” that claimed a wide following. The study of people and their patterns of behavior was predominant in Margaret’s life. During her lifetime, she married three anthropologists. She had a passion for the subject and those studying it. With her third husband, Gregory Bateson, she had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. She also became an anthropologist and wrote a book about her parents, “With a Daughter’s Eyes: Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.”
Lily fictionalizes Margaret’s story through the main characters of Nell, a searcher, her husband, Fen, a chauvinist, and another researcher, Andrew, a stabilizer. As the three of them explore the female-dominated tribe of Tam, their romantic entanglement develops. While they claim to be immersing themselves in the tribe’s lifestyle, they transport 1,000 books with them by canoe, and they have a cook and a houseboy to clean for them.
As the story progresses, the characters make a map or grid of cultures based on a set of traits, which they hope will lead them to a better understanding of people. The characters are elated at the results of their culture mapping, thus, the title of the book, “Euphoria.”
Unfortunately, Nell’s husband is jealous of her talents. It appears as if Fen wants to be a native, rather than study the culture. He’s obsessed with obtaining a flute engraved with hieroglyphics, proving the Tam culture had a written language. The notoriety of that discovery is important to him even if it results in another’s death. The author stated possession of people and things is the motivation for Fen. The comfort and kindness Andrew shows Nell is a contrast to the resentment and selfish actions her husband exhibits. There is some vengeance on the part of Nell as she disposes of the much sought-after flute in the sea. But (spoiler alert) her husband may have brought the same ending on Nell herself.
Beth Hicks ably facilitated the discussion and mentioned her own experiences living in international cultures. Readers noted they had some trouble determining who was speaking at times due to how the book was written. We asked whether the book’s purpose was to teach us how to study people, or was the book actually a love story? Because the anthropologists wanted to study people before missionaries entered their world and changes in behavior occurred, we discussed how a missionary feels in a tribal world.
So many questions surfaced. How can we know another culture, person, even ourselves? We agreed that we bring our own subjectivity to any study. There always are more questions than answers.