Review: Euphoria, Lily King

Lily King’s novel Euphoria is based on the lives of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively. While many of the details are changed, including some rather significant details, much of the story, as it unfolds, is firmly based on the actual experiences of the three anthropologists who worked together, for a time, on the Sepik River in what is today Papua New Guinea.

As the novel begins, Nell Stone and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen, are looking for a new tribe to study. At Nell’s insistence, the couple leaves behind their research on the Mumbanyo tribe when Nell felt she could no longer stand living the group. They meet up with Anthony Bankson, a fellow anthropologist from England, who has been alone in the Sepik, and is relieved and excited for the company of fellows. Soon, however, Bankson finds himself entranced by Nell. He is inspired by her intellect, insight, and work ethic—all aspects her personality that her husband both envies and disparages. Their lives become entwined as they work together, but Fen has secrets. Suddenly their relationships, their careers, and even their very lives are careening toward disaster.

While I understand why King took liberties with the stories of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson so that she could tell the story she wanted to tell, there are so many details drawn from their actual lives that it seems strange to me that she didn’t just go all the way with a historical fiction account of Mead in New Guinea. For example, like Bateson, Bankson had two older brothers, John and Martin, and their respective deaths prior to the start of the book, in battle in WWI and in a spectacularly public suicide under the statue of Anteros at Piccadilly Circus, were identical in all details to those of the real Bateson. I suppose you can’t make that stuff up. Like Bateson’s father, Bankson’s father was a renowned geneticist who coined the term genetics. Like Mead herself, Nell studied with Franz Boas and probably had an affair with Boas’s fellow student, Helen (who is based on Ruth Benedict).

However, as I said, the story does deviate from that of the historical anthropologists involved in some significant and rather spoilery ways, so I can’t delve too deeply in exploring those differences without endangering your enjoyment of the book (if you want to read it). Suffice it to say the details make for a highly romantic and cinematic story, especially near the end. I suppose reality didn’t play as well for King, hence the changes. Actually, the book would make a great movie—It has romance and adventure, humor, a complicated villain, and great characters—but based on the reading I’ve done about Mead, Fortune, and Bateson, just fact-checking as I read, I have to said their own real story would be equally good fodder for film.

King’s characterization reminds me quite a lot of Hemingway’s: tough women idealized by the men; over-the-top alpha males; masculine men who are also in touch with their feelings. The writing, too, was perfect for the story it told: spare in some details, leaving readers to put pieces together; poetically descriptive in other places. The characters seemed visceral and real. King makes the reader feel the heat and steamy damp of the New Guinea, and I felt as though I had traveled down the Sepik with all three of the main characters. I definitely found myself more interested in Margaret Mead, and her fellow anthropologists after reading this. Aside from an introductory course in college, I know little about anthropology, and I have to admit, some aspects of this science are troubling to me. There is always the whiff of the colonial about it when I read about it. I can’t put my finger on what it is that bothers me. Euphoria is a quick read. I had the paperback, and though the length is about short-average (257 pages), the paper is thick, and the font is largish. I think I probably read the whole thing in about five hours.

I am not sure if the photos are copyright, so I didn’t want to post them here on my blog, but you should definitely check out this exhibit at the Library of Congress. It has a wonderful picture of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune (what a heck of a name!), and Gregory Bateson together, along with their notes about the personality classification system the three of them developed after reading Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture together, an incident that is described in breathtaking detail in the novel. In fact, I had run into this idea without knowing Margaret Mead had anything to do with it in some professional development. Four major personality groups are divided on points of a compass (those who fall between two groups tend toward the intercardinal points on the compass. For the record, I identified myself as a “South” with some “West” tendencies. Here is a link to a PDF about the system. I will be anxious to talk about this aspect of the book with my fellow book club members, most of whom have also had this training and/or experienced an opportunity to define themselves on the compass.

Euphoria is a unique novel. I’ve never read anything set in Papua New Guinea before (nor am I likely to again, as it’s just not a setting writers use). I have also never seen anthropology tackled quite like this in fiction, though it does remind me a bit of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Ultimately, I think it’s a better novel than State of Wonder; I realize I gave State of Wonder 5 stars as opposed to the 4.5 for this novel, but I think I just really hated Fen, and were I to rate State of Wonder now, some time after having read it, it is probably more of a 4 star book for me. But I don’t go back and rethink or change ratings, which are based on my gut response right after finishing a book.

Rating: ★★★★½

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Sunday Post #43: Unfilmable Books

Sunday Post
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my AP Literature students are reading both Mrs. Dalloway and The Remains of the Day this year. Knowing there are film versions of both books (and that The Remains of the Day in particular was well regarded), I decided to watch them this weekend and see if I want to use any parts of either film in class.

The first thing I thought after I finished watching Mrs. Dalloway, which had a great cast—Vanessa Redgrave is Clarissa Dalloway and Rupert Graves is Septimus Warren Smith—is that some books are just unfilmable. The movie stuck to the plot well enough. In a book where not a lot happens, at least on the exterior, that’s not to hard to do. What is nearly impossible to do is to capture the interior monologues of both Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith. I thought for sure perhaps some brilliant cinematography would capture the breathtaking imagery in Mrs. Dalloway, but not really. I was particularly disappointed in the scene in which Clarissa buys the flowers. In the book, it’s a master class in imagery that leads directly to memory, but in the movie, it’s a brief scene that is stripped of almost all of the punch it packs in the book. I might show clips of the film precisely so students can discuss why it isn’t filmable or how they might have filmed it instead.

On the other hand, The Remains of the Day was brilliant in all respects save one: the ending. In the book, you see a slightly different ending when Stevens realizes how he has spent his life, and it crashes over him. His stiff upper lip barely quivers in the film. To me, that’s a pretty substantial change, and I don’t like it at all. As to the acting, though, brilliant, of course (what would you expect out of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson?). The scenery and sets are absolutely gorgeous. I thought more than once of Downton Abbey and the passage of all those old manor houses. I suppose many of them are now basically open for tours and are sorts of historical monuments to another time. This book, as it turned out, was quite filmable, or at least resulted in a really good film. You probably knew that, though, because I think I’m the last person to see that movie.

In other bookish news, I’m wondering what is wrong with me for not really liking Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun much. I’m going to finish it, I guess, because I’m pretty far in, and I do sort of want to see what happens to everyone. I’m really annoyed by how long the chapters are. I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere when I’m reading because the chapters are so long. So many people I know have loved this book. I am just sort of bored with quirkier-than-thou teenagers, erudite and intelligent beyond their years. John Green is responsible for this trend, and I think I’m going to complain about in the march #ShelfLove entry on tropes I’m sick of in literature next month. After John Green made it so lucrative, it seemed like every other YA author had to copy it. I know plenty of smart teenagers. I’m not saying kids like these kids don’t exist. I just… don’t think I’m the audience for these books anymore.

My book club is reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and all I can say is holy heck! How did this guy get me interested in something I have zero interest in? That is one helluva trick. The writing is fantastic. I’m not too far in, just about 50 pages so far. I can really see the people he’s describing. They are real, flesh-and-blood people, and I already care a lot about them, and even though I know they won the Olympic Gold in 1936, it’s still unfolding like one of those mysteries, where you can’t see how it will turn out in the end. That is another neat trick. Plus, two interesting connections already: Brown mentions rowers practicing at Lake Quinsigamond, which is literally right where I live. My attention was caught immediately. But then, he delves in the background of one of the rowers, Joe Rantz, who grew up poor and down on his luck in Spokane, WA., which is where my grandfather was born. The family stories were so similar in some ways, I found myself immediately rooting for Joe Rantz. What a great book! And see, only about 50 pages in, whereas with I’ll Give You the Sun, I’m about halfway through and still not really sure how I feel.

I’m still working on Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette and dipping into other books here and there. I bought myself two books. I couldn’t resist. Neither of them has been on my TBR list very long, but I do really want to read both of them.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set in Papua New Guinea before (Euphoria), and after reading both A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway, I fell in love with Virginia Woolf.

In other news, I was quite sad to hear of the passing of Harper Lee, though it is true she hasn’t been in good health, and she was advanced in years. I wrote about her influence on my decision to become an English teacher on my education blog. To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of my favorite books to teach. Sad, too, that Umberto Eco has died. I have a copy of The Name of the Rose, I haven’t read it yet. I have seen a film adaptation, though, and really enjoyed it.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t share our own exciting news. My husband has written a book tie-in to the show Better Call Saul (a spinoff of Breaking Bad) called Don’t Go to Jail!: Saul Goodman’s Guide to Keeping the Cuffs Off. I’m really excited for him. This book is the realization of a lot of really hard work (I know—I was there!), and it’s something he’s dreamed about doing for some time. It’s available now for pre-order, and it will officially be released on April 5, so run out and get it! You will love it, especially if you like the show already.

So that is how my reading week is going. How about yours?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

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