There are so many beautiful things to say about this book, but perhaps the greatest praise I can offer is this: I read it in three days, and once I finished, I picked it up and read it again. It’s magical, so magical in fact, that it passed my perfection test perfectly — like that first flutter of friendship, that quick spark of energy between kindred spirits, this book takes you in smack exactly on page 50. One paragraph in, right on cue, page 50. Perfection.
Now we readers are a hopeful people, but we are not always forgiving. It’s okay to admit it. We are a little judgy. We pick up a book, longing for that seductive pull that promises to take our imagination to a fabulous dinner party. We walk into the room with wide-eyed expectation. We wait graciously with our host as the cast of characters is introduced, and while we are full of questions, we watch patiently as events begin to unfold. But around page 50, if pieces are not falling into place, we stifle yawns and quickly begin to fashion our excuses. Maybe you’re a page 75er. Maybe you’re a 100. And if you are the determined sort to hold out for dessert after three hours of bad conversation over cold gruel, God help you. It’s page 50 for me because I just know. I can feel a connection with someone within a few minutes, and I tend to read books the same way. And right on cue, this book enchanted me.
Lily King’s Euphoria, loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead, is the story of three anthropologists who get tangled up studying the tribes of New Guinea in the 1930s. The American Nell Stone has written a bestselling book on ethnography, which has made her famous and well-respected among her peers and has afforded her sufficient grant money to finance her excursions. She is drawn into relationship with the women and children of the tribes she inhabits while Fen, her embittered husband, is almost a Kurtz-like character on the hunt for virile rituals, sacred objects and warfare. The pair are at odds over her professional success, and Fen’s character is driven throughout the novel to one up her and restore what he perceives as an imbalance of power in their relationship. At the start of the narrative, Nell has successfully pulled him back from a murderous tribe, and as they float through an atmospheric riverscape in search of a new village, they come across Bankson, a college rival who soon comes between them in wonderful ways . . . right on page 50!
Nell is in bad shape. Fen has broken her glasses, she also has broken her ankle and is covered in festering lesions, and the attentive reader is quick to observe that it is Bankson who notices. Granted he is telling the story at this point, but King takes pains to show the reader that Bankson is tender and thoughtful . . . and drawn to Nell. I won’t give away all the details of their friendship but will simply cast them as two caring kindred spirits connected by a great love in this wonderfully seductive story, with the feel of Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa but full of intelligent commentary on gender, ethnography and the struggle for power or peace, for spiritual connection and intimacy.
After you read it, please do come back here and tell me your favorite parts. And because I am still under its spell and can’t bring myself to admit that fall classes begin this week, I’m going to go read it again.
I try not to return to these moments very often, for I end up lacerating my young self for not simply kissing the girl. I thought we had time. Despite everything, I believed there was time. Love’s first mistake. Perhaps love’s only mistake. Time for you and time for me, though I never did warm to Eliot. She was married. She was pregnant. And what would it have mattered in the end? What would it have altered to have kissed her then, that night? Everything. Nothing. Impossible to know. We fell asleep reciting. Who was speaking or what poem I am not certain. We woke to little Sema and Amini poking us in the leg.
She told me the Tam believed that love grows in the stomach and that they went around clutching their bellies when their hearts were broken. You are in my stomach was their most intimate expression of love.
Euphoria, By Lily King (288 pp)
Atmospheric and sensual, with startling images throughout, Euphoria, is an intellectually stimulating tour de force. NPR
A New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the 2014 Kirkus Prize
Winner of the 2014 New England Book Award for Fiction
A Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
A Best Book of the Year for 2014:
“New York Times Book Review,” “Time,” NPR, “Washington Post,” “Entertainment Weekly,” “Newsday,” “Vogue,” “New York Magazine,” “Seattle Times,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Wall Street Journal,” “Boston Globe,” “The Guardian,” “Kirkus Reviews,” Amazon, “Publishers Weekly,” Oprah.com, Salon