Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lily King's Euphoria

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I'd have probably chosen this book anyway, just based on the riot of color that graces the cover and the one word title, "Euphoria," but I'd also been hearing some excellent buzz about Lily King's latest novel that made me curious.

It's no secret in literary circles that, for the past several years, a pseudo-biography about an interesting, perhaps unsung woman, is a sure-fire recipe for a hit novel. It started with "Loving Frank," then "The Paris Wife," and let's not forget "The Aviator's Wife." And why not? Shouldn't the tough woman behind the man finally start getting some credit?

In the case of "Euphoria" though, Ms. King turns this phenomenon on its head. The fascinating subject of her novel, Nell Stone, is a thinly disguised Margaret Mead, the ground-breaking, wonderfully controversial cultural anthropologist whose observations of tribal customs in the Asian Pacific resulted in the classic "Coming of Age in Samoa." (I regret that I've never read this but will now likely give it a look.) I love when reading fiction snowballs into other areas.

Researching through Mead's unpublished letters, King has written a tight, relatively short novel that packs in a great deal of information and character study. Nell is a woman who is so ahead of her time, so open to exploration, so driven to learn and to understand, that I found myself wishing that I could meet her.

By the time she arrives with her husband Fen, also an anthropologist, in the Sepik River area of New Guinea, she has already attained some renown from her first book. That fact is a thorn in the side of the less focused Fen and the seed of professional jealousy sprouts as Nell works successfully with the women and children of the Tam tribe, writing prodigious notes each evening, thriving in their female-dominated culture.

Enter Andrew Bankson, a British anthropologist well-known to the couple by his reputation, and the subtle fissures in Nell's and Fen's marriage open up. Bankson falls in love with Nell's mind first, perhaps why I fell half in love with Bankson, a fictional version of Mead's third husband Gregory Bateson. The two are so temperamentally suited, writing and talking together through many long nights, each one's ambition and love of the work feeds off the other's.

But what really excites me about this novel is the way Ms. King takes readers into the lives of the tribal women. Reminiscent of Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder," we feel the freedom that the women share, admire the way they work together to care for and feed their families, and envy their sensuous ability to exult in their femaleness and their unfettered sexuality. A visceral air of fecundity seeps through the village, instilling a deep longing in Nell for a child of her own. And because we come to care for Nell so much, we wish it for her as well.

One can't write a novel about Brits and Americans "studying" other cultures without the worry that the colonialist mindset will raise its ugly head. Though King touches on the hubris of explorers who have stolen artifacts from the countries that have welcomed them, she dwells more on characterization. What motivates these anthropologists? How do they achieve satisfaction? How do they manage to survive and even thrive so far from their own societies? Perhaps they are afflicted with a strong case of euphoria!

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