Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was a young anthropology major fascinated by the field work of formative anthropologists (even though they didn’t always employ the best methods). I read Coming of Age in Samoa, among many other texts, and thought (briefly) I had found my calling. Ultimately archaeology lured me away, but it made an impression that has lasted a lifetime.
So far, at any rate.
Despite this, and despite rave reviews from so many trusted bookish friends, I had no yet read Euphoria by Lily King. I finally did and it was so very, very good. Brilliant storytelling, beautiful writing, and compelling main characters brought the story to life. Nell Stone, loosely based on Margaret Mead, is a newly famous anthropologist. She is married to Schuyler Fenwick, who is deeply jealous of her success. While traveling to Australia, the meet old acquaintance Andrew Bankson and opt to stay on in New Guinea. This choice, among others that follow, changes the course of all of their lives.
Although Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson served as the inspiration for the love triangle that develops, the outcome, and the story King tells, is very different from reality. The three anthropologists, both in history and in the novel, spend months working together on the Sepik River in what was then known as the Territory of New Guinea. Fen and Nell are working with the Tam, while Andrew works with the geographically close Kiona. The story propels them together, both due to Andrew’s loneliness and his attraction to Nell. It is an intimate novel, both tender and refreshing, and in the end just a little bit heartbreaking.
“Nell and Fen had chased away my thoughts of suicide. But what had they left me with? Fierce desires, a great tide of feeling of which I could make little sense, an ache that seemed to have no name but want. I want. Intransitive. No object. It was the opposite of want to die. But it was scarcely more bearable.”
I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read this novel, but I’m glad I finally did. It will undoubtedly stay with me for a long time to come – the story of Nell and Fen and Andrew is deep in my stomach.
Do you ever find a book that you wish you had found so much sooner?