Euphoria by Lily King


This is another one I chose because it's on the NYT list of 10 best books of 2014 (the other was All the Light We Cannot See). It is inspired by events in the life of Margaret Mead and takes place in 1933 in New Guinea where she and her husband worked briefly with Gregory Bateson who became her third husband. 

In the novel Nell and her husband Fen have just fled a malevolent tribe who threatened Nell when they encounter Andrew Bankson who has worked on his own so long he is overjoyed to see them. He narrates the story of their intense time together. He and Nell are immediately drawn to each other and spend much of the first night together talking. He settles them with the Tam tribe seven hours from his own work and leaves them on their own for weeks. Nell's success with her work in that time is remarkable while Fen crashes about, making no notes on whatever it is he does.

When Bankson does arrive for a visit, it is clear that Fen is jealous Nell's success and alert to the interest between Nell and Bankson. The three do have their productive and exciting times of work together. But Fen eventually secretly undertakes a plan that results in a death of a tribe member and necessitates their fleeing the area. At this point the story takes a turn that varies from Margaret Mead's life dramatically.

The limitations of anthropology were a part of this story; the title comes from a passage in the book quoted in the NYT review when Nell says the moment comes about two months into the field research when the tribe's culture suddenly makes sense:

It's a delusion — you've only been there eight weeks — and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria.

After reading the book, I read the Wikipedia entry for Margaret Mead. What an amazing woman she was. She studied with Ruth Benedict and likely had a sexual connection with her. She was married three times, the last marriage was with Gregory Bateson (on whom the Bankson character was based).  The pediatrician for their daughter, the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, was Benjamin Spock who adopted some of the approaches for childrearing based on her field observations. Mead's sister Elizabeth married William Steig, best known in the Self household for his children's book The Amazing Bone.

The book was almost entirely narrated by the Bankson character, Simon Vance, a good narrator. A small portion was in Nell's voice or about Nell and was narrated by Xe Sands, whose voice I found unpleasant and sometimes hard to understand.

Lily King, Euphoria, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014, 261 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and through Amazon. 

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