What’s Kelly Reading?
Our latest review is of a New York Times best-seller and 2014’s winner of the Kirkus Prize. Did you read it? Did you miss it?
Lily King’s Euphoria
Margaret Mead is widely known as an acclaimed yet controversial anthropologist and scholar. Her published works “Coming of Age in Samoa” and “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies” were cornerstones of the feminist movement as well as the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Mead’s life was scintillating and her research was prolific- the perfect fodder for an absorbing story of adventure. Lily King took up exactly that effort in her third novel, Euphoria, a fictionalized account of one of Mead’s many anthropological forays. This work offers so much more than the description on the book jacket- “the story of three young, gifted anthropologists of the 1930s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives.”
I admittedly selected this book partially because it was on The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014 and I’m so glad that I did! The novel centers around precocious American anthropologist Nell Stone (inspired by Margaret Mead), her jealous Australian husband Fen and a coincidental friend they encounter named Andrew Bankston. The majority of the story is told from Bankston’s point of view with Nell’s journal entries interwoven, which brilliantly intensifies the emotional tension and the drama. This interplay was crucial to the momentum of the novel and although unconventional, I thought King’s tactic here was brilliant. Through their varying points of view, we learn of Stone’s and Bankston’s back-stories and difficulties, which has the effect of adding dimension to the present.
Meticulously researched and told in breathtaking detail, the reader is transported to Papua New Guinea where the intrigue, passion and even the scientific detail kept me turning pages and hanging on to Kings’ sensual and descriptive prose. Consider the way Bankston describes Nell as she encounters his favorite tree:
“She ran her palm down a swath of blue. I had the odd feeling that they were communicating as if I had introduced her to an old friend and they were already getting along well. For the truth is I had already stroked that tree many a time, spoken to it, sobbed against it.”
If you are not a fan of scientific or historical fiction, fear not. Although the story is couched in the setting of an anthropologic mission to study tribal cultures, the true narrative is centered on the tension and yearning that exists between the central characters. It is absolutely fascinating to imagine these three figures as pioneers in the nascent field of anthropology, but also as human beings with desires, fears, and insecurities.
There are many overarching themes that run through Euphoria. Competition, companionship, what it means to be “civilized” and love are some of the most notable with the latter of these being the most interesting to me. I do not intend to spoil the intensity of this novel for any potential reader, but rather entice you with a beautiful image that is repeated throughout the story. This image is that of two specific kinds of love: the intoxicating flush that comes with wine and the comforting sustenance that comes from bread. “Wine is sort of thrilling and sensual, and bread is familiar and essential.” One thing I know for sure is that Lily King serves up a heaping portion of both wine and bread in this deeply satisfying book.