BookTalk: Euphoria

by Sharon Kane

euphoriaI think Lily King’s Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) fits the category of New Adult Literature, appropriate for upper teens and twenty-somethings. I would love to use this novel to introduce the discipline of anthropology to high school students. It is based on the life of Margaret Mead (though the story takes on a life of its own–the characters all have fictional names– and it diverges from biographical information in other ways that I will not mention in order to avoid spoilers).

The story involves three fictional anthropologists: Nell Stone (who is based on Margaret Mead), her husband, Fen (who is based on Margaret’s second husband), and Andrew Bankson, the point-of-view character (who is based on Gregory Bateson, who would become Mead’s third husband). It begins with Bankson looking back to the year 1933 when he was in the Territory of New Guinea with Nell, already famous for a book she published about the children of a tribe she had observed, and Fen. Readers get early clues alerting them to Fen’s jealousy and abusive behavior toward Nell, as well as to his questionable values regarding sacred traditions and what he considers artifacts. Conversations ensue between Nell and Bankson about intellectual ideas, as well as about grief they both experienced after the death of siblings. These conversations make it easy for readers to predict that they will fall in love. Add Nell’s yearning for a baby, and the complexity of the story increases.

The story presents ethical ideas for readers to ponder. Referring to Fen’s work, Bankson muses, “I couldn’t help questioning the research. When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?” (p. 177). Speaking of Nell’s desire for an interview with a man who had left the tribe to work in the mines, he explains:

An informant like this in the field, a man who has been raised in the culture but removed for a time so that he is able to see his own people from a different angle with the ability to contrast their behaviors to another set of behaviors, is invaluable. … She felt she knew his story already. … But she was aware that the story you think you know is never the real one. She wanted his real one. (p. 159)

After closing the book, I was curious to know how Lily King did her research and made decisions as she wrote this historically inspired work of fiction. Luckily, I found many interviews with the author that answer my questions and share great insights about her writing process.

 

Appropriate for high school and beyond

(anthropology, psychology, history, geography, ELA)