From The Novel Nine: Euphoria by Lily King

Our November book was Euphoria by Lily King, a novel inspired by, but not based upon, the lives of the famous anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Ruth Benedict. King’s main characters are three anthropologists conducting research in New Guinea in the 1930s. While the primary tension stems from the love triangle between Nell Stone, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, there is also considerable conflict over the different ways in which each of them conducts research and what each feels is the worth of that research.

Nell, for example, describes “euphoria” as that “moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. 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 that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” Bankson, on the other hand, questions whether anyone can ever be objective or truly understand another’s culture. Meanwhile, Fen, jealous of his wife’s accomplishments, does almost no research, but instead, plots to do something that both Nell and Bankson find reprehensible.

All of us liked the book, some far more than others, but we were left somewhat puzzled by Nell. Many of us thought that the author hadn’t given us quite enough information to understand why a woman who had broken nearly every social convention of the 1930s would stay with an emotionally and physically abusive husband. One of us suggested that perhaps the author was making the point that these researchers, whose lives were devoted to understanding the lives of others, had very little insight into their own lives. Someone else suggested that perhaps Nell stayed with her husband to try to undo what she saw as the grievous act he had visited upon the people they were studying. Many of us also would have liked more discussion of the meanings of the rituals and customs ascribed to the tribes being studied — even if they were the author’s invention.

All in all, we found Euphoria to be a compelling read, but a novel that left us with a number of unresolved questions, which did make for a great discussion.

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