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Euphoria (Deckle edge) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 3, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, June 2014: If I tell you that Euphoria is a novel loosely based on the life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, your eyes will start to glaze over. Well, they shouldn’t--not when the novel is as wonderful as this one. Its both romantic and intelligent, a combination you don’t need to be a scientist to know doesn’t appear often in nature. Mead, a controversial character in real life, is here transmuted into the equally complex (and somewhat sickly) Nell Stone, who has made a reputation for herself by studying native tribes in New Guinea. Her husband, also an anthropologist, is more jealous than dutiful, although he does manage to make her feel inadequate for failing to produce a baby. Enter a charming-but-tortured third anthropologist, who at times seems to be unsure to which of his new friends he’s more attracted. Sparks of the emotional and sexual kind fly, but what’s even more interesting is the portrait of a growing friendship based at least partly on philosophy and attitudes toward “primitive” cultures. You know from the beginning that some bad things are going to happen, but it is to King’s great credit (and the fact that she changes some of the events in Mead’s life) that you can’t really guess what they are. This is the best kind of historical novel--the kind that sent me running to read more about its real-life inspiration. --Sara Nelson
- Publisher : Atlantic Monthly Press (June 3, 2014)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0802122558
- ISBN-13 : 978-0802122551
- Item Weight : 14.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.75 x 1 x 8.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #486,887 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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We are first introduced to Mead in a scene of marital rape (by the Reo Fortune character, her first husband), and this pretty much sums up how this author manhandles Mead. Really, it's awful and I am shocked that this novel has not gotten more criticism. Mead's bisexuality and relationship with Ruth Benedict is almost completely erased; the novel takes Mead's queer love life and turns it into a heteronormative love triangle. Most of the novel is about two men fighting each other over Mead. I was in quite a shock by the time I got to the end of this book, so the ending is a bit of an angry blur, but the book ends with Mead dying in childbirth (this didn't happen in real life) and the Bateson character publishing their research as a single-author after Mead's death. Literally, the author kills off Mead before she publishes (in real life) her bestseller "Sex and Temperament." Also, the author's descriptions of anthropological theory are really wonky and (strangely!) don't mention that Mead's actual research was on sexuality, gender, and violence.
All of this is extra troubling because many readers are learning about anthropology, ethnography, and Mead *for the first time* with this book. I can't tell you how many cocktail parties I've been at where I say I'm an anthropologist and then people tell me they only know what that means because they've read this book. This scares me! People think this is Mead and this is anthropology!
Let me say this again: The author takes one of the most prominent female, queer scientists of the last century, then rapes and kills her before she publishes her magnum opus, and then has a man publish the research instead. Horrendous.
As an anthropologist, I beg you please don't read this novel. Mead's real life is far richer than this novel. Read Mead's books instead.
Let’s get the one complaint out of the way (not enough to subtract a star, or even a fraction of a star – actually, I wish I could give this book more than five stars). Sometimes the author hints darkly at an event instead of clearly explaining. She infers. Now, some literary-type readers prefer the subtlety of inferences. I admire those who understand them. I do not consider them posers. I love the ambiguities and possibilities of an unanswered (or unanswerable) question. But, in this instance, and some others, I wish I knew more about what happened before the story opens, especially Fen’s dark past, as part of a huge family, living in isolation in the Australian outback. I’m pretty sure about the type of behaviors that this one, dark hint refers to, but not entirely sure. The resulting twist in Fen’s character, however, is more important than the particular, salacious details of his nefarious family history, and his acceptance and expectation of evil and violence in every civilization steers his actions as an adult anthropologist living with the tribes along the banks of the Sepik River (“flamboyantly serpentine, the Amazon of the South Pacific” – see? Isn’t she brilliant?).
Of the three main characters, Fen is the only one who doesn’t have a narrative voice. The reader only knows him through the first person narration of Andrew Bankson, and the third person limited narration of his wife, Nell Stone (loosely based on the real-life anthropologist Margaret Mead). We only get to hear his voice through dialogue and observe his actions. He’s the least sympathetic character throughout. Although I did not love him as a person, I loved the creation of him, the complexity of his sometimes-evil nature. And, I understood him, although I could never empathize with him. I’ve met him many times, here in the real world. He reminds me of so many men I’ve known well. He’s Australian, but in many ways, like an American man.
So, let’s get on with my love letter to Lily King. I plunged under, into the world she created with her words, and did not care to come up for air, ever. I once had a writing teacher who told us to create a list when we got “stuck”. Here’s the best list I’ve ever read (describing Andrew Bankson’s past): “The house I grew up in there, Hemsley House, had been in the possession of Bankson scientists for three generations, its every desktop, drawer, and wardrobe stuffed with scientist’s remnants: spyglasses, test tubes, finger scales, pocket magnifiers, loupes, compasses, and a brass telescope; boxes of glass slides, and ento pins, geodes, fossils, bones, teeth, petrified wood, framed beetles and butterflies, and thousands of loose insect carcasses that turned to powder upon contact.” A positively Dickensian list, but better, less preposterously wordy and more utilitarian. I wanted to walk through Hemsley House, and touch those things. In a way, I felt like I had.
I could go on and on. I underlined passages and made notations in the margins. I lived inside these pages. There are so many layers, and so many insights and ideas to explore and rethink. I keep going back. After all, anthropology is the study of humans and their lives, their relationships to each other and to their environment, their art, their chronicles. It’s everything. I keep going back to a diagram (a “grid”) that Fen, Andrew and Nell create together, categorizing personalities into the four main directions on a compass. You don’t have to be just North, South, East, or West, though, you can be a Northwest personality, or a Southeast personality. This novel is so complex and so deep. It asks so many beautifully unanswerable questions. Above all, this story leaves the reader with a way to look at, appreciate and observe cultures that are highly civilized, but considered to be primitive and inferior to traditional Western culture. These characters view anthropology through a wide, panoramic lens, a zoom lens, a microscopic lens, and just about any other lens you can think of, including no lens, just immersion. It’s also about how our ideas, like our children, take on a life of their own once they’re launched out into the world. You can take aim, but you have no control after they’re flying free. It’s about how we think and work as individuals and how we work collectively. It’s about everything that’s important in life.
Top reviews from other countries
Nominally this is the story anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea, and while I have no idea if King has accurately represented the period and place, she certainly made it feel real. Most important she made it feel close: close as in warm, and wet, and pressed against the skin. The growing tension between the characters, and the locals, makes it seem easy to pick out good guys and bad guys – but this book isn’t so easy, and if you’re looking for an exploration of the harms we do each other (even those lucky few with fantastic minds do to each other), and in turn how those harms can spread against the best of intentions, this is that. Find yourself somewhere in the sunshine and read this in one go. Then spend the rest of the evening thinking about it.