Euphoria [NOOK Book]

Overview

Set in 1930s Papua New Guinea, this gorgeous novel is about three young, ground-breaking anthropologists caught in a love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers and, ultimately, their lives

English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field for several years studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of ...

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Euphoria

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Overview

Set in 1930s Papua New Guinea, this gorgeous novel is about three young, ground-breaking anthropologists caught in a love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers and, ultimately, their lives

English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field for several years studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with two colleagues, the controversial Nell Stone and her wry and mercurial Australian husband, Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just fled the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s poor health, are hungry for a new discovery. When Bankson finds them a new tribe to divert them from leaving Papua New Guinea, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control.

King’s writing is effortlessly elegant and the setting wonderfully rich and evocative. What really sets this novel apart, though, are the brilliantly realized characters absorbed in the work of understanding the fundamental humanity that connects us all. Set between two world wars and inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is an enthralling story of passion, possession, exploration and sacrifice.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 05/15/2014
Inspired by an event in the life of Margaret Mead, this novel tells the story of three young anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea. Professional superstar Nell Stone and her Australian husband, Fen, flee one tribe, and, with the help of English anthropologist Andrew Bankson, settle with the Tam, an unusual, female-dominated tribe. A love triangle soon develops among the three. The attraction Bankson feels for Nell saves him from loneliness and suicide, but it heightens tensions between Nell and Fen, ultimately exploding in violence. This three-way relationship is complex and involving, but even more fascinating is the depiction of three anthropologists with three entirely diverse ways of studying another culture. They disagree on the extent to which it is possible and even necessary to intrude on a culture in order to understand it. These differences, along with professional jealousy and sexual tension, propel the story toward its inevitable conclusion. VERDICT Recommended for fans of novels about exploration as myth and about cultural clashes, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. [See Prepub Alert, 1/6/14.]—Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
The New York Times Book Review - Emily Eakin
…as uncanny as it is transporting. Euphoria is a meticulously researched homage to Mead's restless mind and a considered portrait of Western anthropology in its primitivist heyday. It's also a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace—a love triangle in extremis. For King, whose three previous novels, all expertly crafted, rarely strayed far from late-20th-century, New England WASP culture, Euphoria represents a departure and arguably a breakthrough. The steam the book emits is as much intellectual as erotic (for Mead there seems hardly to have been a distinction), and King's signal achievement may be to have created satisfying drama out of a quest for interpretive insight.
Publishers Weekly
★ 04/14/2014
The love lives and expeditions of controversial anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson are fictionalized and richly reimagined in New England Book Award winner King’s (Father of the Rain) meaty and entrancing fourth book. Set in the 1930s in Papua New Guinea, this impeccably researched story illuminates the state of the world as clearly as the passion of its characters. Many years into his study of the isolated Kiona tribe, Andrew Bankson (the stand-in for Bateson here) is recovering from a recent failed suicide attempt when he meets with renowned anthropologist Nell Stone (Mead) and her fiery husband Fen (Fortune) at a party. His vigor for life renewed after meeting them, Andrew introduces the couple to the tribe they’ll be studying, who live a few hours away, down the Sepik River. Before long, Andrew becomes obsessed—not just with his work but with Nell, and the relationship tangle sets off a fateful series of events. While the love triangle sections do turn pages (Innuendo! Jealousy! Betrayal!), King’s immersive prose takes center stage. The fascinating descriptions of tribal customs and rituals, paired with snippets of Nell’s journals—as well as the characters’ insatiable appetites for scientific discovery—all contribute to a thrilling read that, at its end, does indeed feel like “the briefest, purest euphoria.” Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary. (June)
From the Publisher

A CBS News "Must-have titles for your summer reading list"; An O, the Oprah Magazine, “10 Titles To Pick Up Now”; A Marie Claire "novel that needs to be in your beach bag"; A USA Today pick for Summer's Hottest Titles"; A Boston Globe Summer Reading Suggestion; A St. Louis Post Dispatch "Books to carry on the road this summer"; Reader’s Digest Summer Reading List

Euphoria is a meticulously researched homage to Mead’s restless mind and a considered portrait of Western anthropology in its primitivist heyday. It’s also a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace—a love triangle in extremis…The steam the book emits is as much intellectual as erotic…and King’s signal achievement may be to have created satisfying drama out of a quest for interpretive insight…King is brilliant on the moral contradictions that propelled anthropological encounters with remote tribes…In King’s exquisite book, desire—for knowledge, fame, another person—is only fleetingly rewarded.”—Emily Eakin, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

"It’s refreshing to see the world’s most famous anthropologist brought down to human scale and placed at the center of this svelte new book by Lily King. “Euphoria” is King’s first work of historical fiction. For this dramatic new venture, she retains all the fine qualities that made her three previous novels insightful and absorbing, but now she’s working on top of a vast body of scholarly work and public knowledge. And yet “Euphoria” is also clearly the result of ferocious restraint; King has resisted the temptation to lard her book with the fruits of her research. Poetic in its compression and efficiency, “Euphoria” presumes some familiarity with Mead’s biography for context and background, and yet it also deviates from that history in promiscuous ways...King keeps the novel focused tightly on her three scientists, which makes the glimpses we catch of their New Guinea subjects all the more arresting...Although King has always written coolly about intense emotions, here she captures the amber of one man’s exquisite longing for a woman who changed the way we look at ourselves."—Ron Charles, Washington Post

"Atmospheric and sensual, with startling images throughout, Euphoria is an intellectually stimulating tour de force."—NPR.com

“Euphoria is at once romantic, exotic, informative, and entertaining.”— Reader’s Digest summer reading list)

"It's smart and steamy and like the best historical fiction, it made me want to read about Mead."—USA Today's Summer's Hottest Titles

"Enthralling . . . From Conrad to Kingsolver, the misdeeds of Westerners have inspired their own literary subgenre, and in King’s insightful, romantic addition, the work of novelist and anthropologist find resonant parallel: In the beauty and cruelty of others, we discover our own.”—Vogue

"King's superb coup is to have imagined a story loosely founded on the intertwined lives of the above three that instantly becomes its own, thrilling saga - while provoking a detective's curiosity about its sources....King builds an intense, seductive, sexual and intellectual tension among the three: This taut, fraught triangulation is the novel's driving force. There are so many exhilarating elements to savor in Euphoria. It moves fast. It's grit-in-your-teeth sensuous. The New Guinean bush and its peoples - their concerns, their ordeals - confront us with fierce, tangible exactness, with dignity and wit. So do the vagaries of anthropological theories, rivalries, politics. Observations are unfailingly acute, and the book is packed with them....It's a brave, glorious set piece. By the end of Euphoria, this reader sighed with wistful satisfaction, wishing the book would go on. Brava to Lily King."—Joan Frank,San Francisco Chronicle

"It’s the rare novel of ideas that devours its readers’ attention. More often, as with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries or Gravity’s Rainbow, we work our way through these books carefully and with frequent pauses, rather than gulping them down in long, thirsty drafts. It’s not a literary form known for its great romances, either, although of course love and sex play a role in most fictional characters’ lives. Lily King’s Euphoria, a shortish novel based on a period in the life of pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, is an exception. At its center is a romantic triangle, and it tells a story that begs to be consumed in one or two luxurious binges...King is a sinewy, disciplined writer who wisely avoids the temptation to evoke the overwhelming physicality of the jungle (the heat, the steam, the bugs) by generating correspondingly lush thickets of language. Her story...sticks close to the interlocking bonds that give the novel its tensile power."—Laura Miller, Salon

“Lily King has built her reputation as a gifted novelist steadily over three books. Her fourth, Euphoria—a smart, sexy, concise work inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead—should solidify the critical approval and bring her a host of new readers.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Among the plethora of mysteries and assorted fiction that flow from Maine, it’s a rare novel that rises to the level of Euphoria...a fascinating, multi-layered character study of people under duress....the writing...sweeps you away....Put Euphoria in your book bag for those trips to the beach. You’ll be glad you did."—Portland Herald Press

"Exciting...a wonderfully vivid and perceptive tale...King’s prose sparkles...The upriver experiences of her characters feel thoroughly authentic —fascinating, uncomfortable, always dangerous, sometimes even euphoric."—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Inspired by an event in the life of Margaret Mead, this novel tells the story of three young anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea...This three-way relationship is complex and involving, but even more fascinating is the depiction of three anthropologists with three entirely diverse ways of studying another culture...These differences, along with professional jealousy and sexual tension, propel the story toward its inevitable conclusion...Recommended for fans of novels about exploration as myth and about cultural clashes, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart."—Library Journal (starred review)

"The love lives and expeditions of controversial anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson are fictionalized and richly reimagined in New England Book Award winner King’s (Father of the Rain) meaty and entrancing fourth book...King’s immersive prose takes center stage. The fascinating descriptions of tribal customs and rituals, paired with snippets of Nell’s journals—as well as the characters’ insatiable appetites for scientific discovery—all contribute to a thrilling read that, at its end, does indeed feel like 'the briefest, purest euphoria.'"—Publishers Weekly(starred review)

“Set between the First and Second World Wars, the story is loosely based on events in the life of Margaret Mead. There are fascinating looks into other cultures and how they are studied, and the sacrifices and dangers that go along with it. This is a powerful story, at once gritty, sensuous, and captivating.”—Booklist

"Atmospheric...A small gem, disturbing and haunting."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“There are some novels that take you by the hand with their lovely prose alone; there are those that pull you in with sensual renderings of time and place and a compelling story; and there are still others that seduce you solely with their subject matter. But it is a rare novel indeed that does all of the above at once and with complete artistic mastery. Yet this is precisely what Lily King has done in her stunningly passionate and gorgeously written Euphoria. It is simply one of the finest novels I’ve read in years, and it puts Lily King firmly in the top rank of our most accomplished novelists.”
— Andre Dubus III

“With Euphoria, Lily King gives us a searing and absolutely mesmerizing glimpse into 1930’s New Guinea, a world as savage and fascinating as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where obsessions rise to a feverish pitch, and three dangerously entangled anthropologists will never be the same again. Jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful. I loved this book.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

“I have come to expect Lily King’s nuanced explorations of the human heart, but in this novel she pulled me in to the exotic world of a woman anthropologist working with undiscovered tribes in 1930s New Guinea and I was totally captivated. Euphoria is a great book! So great, that I stayed up late to finish it."—Karl Marlantes

“Writers are childlike in their enthusiasm about other writers’ good work. They’re thinking: How’d they ever think of that? That’s amazing/beautifully written/true! Imagine all the effort that went into pulling this off. Could I do something this original/surprising/moving? I’m always happy to read Lily King, and I particularly enjoyed reading Euphoria.” –Ann Beattie

“Fresh, brilliantly structured, and fully imagined, this novel radically transforms a story we might have known, as outsiders—but now experience, though Lily King's great gifts, as if we'd lived it.”
—Andrea Barrett

“Lily King delves into the intellectual flights and passions of three anthropologists – as complex, rivalrous and brutal as any of the cultures they study. Euphoria is a brilliantly written book.”
—Alice Greenway

“Adventure and romance, danger and knowledge, desire and desolation: these are a few of my favorite things. And, exquisitely braided, they form the core of Euphoria. Set in the 1930’s, in a New Guinea that Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson would recognize with delight and trepidation, this passionate and thrilling new novel reminds us that all our mores are fictions, that culture itself is only a story we tell ourselves. And what a harrowing tale Lily King weaves from these threads. I’m left breathless, excited, ready to wander and explore, a little afraid, enamored, enlightened.“ —Bill Roorbach

Kirkus Reviews
2014-03-29
King (Father of the Rain, 2010, etc.) changes the names (and the outcome) in this atmospheric romantic fiction set in New Guinea and clearly based on anthropologist Margaret Mead's relationship with her second and third husbands, R. F. Fortune and Gregory Bateson—neither a slouch in his own right. In the early 1930s, Nell and Fen are married anthropologists in New Guinea. American Nell has already published a controversial best-seller about Samoan child-rearing while Australian Fen has published only a monograph on Dobu island sorcery. Their marriage is in trouble: She holds Fen responsible for her recent miscarriage; he resents her fame and financial success. Shortly after leaving the Mumbanyo tribe they have been studying (and which Nell has grown to abhor), they run into British anthropologist Bankson, who is researching another tribal village, the Nengai, along the Sepik River. Deeply depressed—he has recently attempted suicide—Bankson is haunted by the deaths of his older brothers and his scientist father's disappointment in him for practicing what is considered a soft science. Also deeply lonely, Bankson offers to find Nell and Fen an interesting tribe to study to keep them nearby. Soon the couple is happily ensconced with the Tam, whose women surprise Nell with their assertiveness. While the attraction, both physical and intellectual, between Bankson and Nell is obvious, Fen also offers Bankson tender care, which threatens to go beyond friendship, when Bankson falls ill. At first, the three-way connection is uniting and stimulating. But as Nell's and Bankson's feelings for each other develop, sexual tensions grow. So do the differences between Fen's and Nell's views on the anthropologist's role. While Bankson increasingly shares Nell's empathetic approach, Fen plots to retrieve an artifact from the Mumbanyo to cement his career. King does not shy from showing the uncomfortable relationship among all three anthropologists and those they study. Particularly upsetting is the portrait of a Tam who returns "civilized" after working in a copper mine. A small gem, disturbing and haunting.< BR>★
The Barnes & Noble Review

The opening sentences of Euphoria, Lily King's superb novel, thrusts the reader right into its dark heart:

As they were leaving the Mumbanyo someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.
"Another dead baby," Fen said.

He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn't know if he was joking.
''She'' is Nell Stone, in a canoe with her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, on the Sepik River in New Guinea; she is also a version of Margaret Mead, while Fen is drawn from Mead's second husband, Reo Fortune. Soon enough the couple will run into Andrew Bankson, a fictional depiction of Gregory Bateson, Mead's third husband, and, later, we will hear from Helen Benjamin, a character owing her existence to Mead's sometime lover, Ruth Benedict.

Nell is suffering from fever, a gashed hand, neuritis in her arms, a badly healed broken ankle, lesions, a possible case of ringworm, and, as becomes increasingly clear, a terrible marriage to a man whose combative personality is worsened by resentment toward her. The couple has just spent a year and half, which is pretty much the length of their marriage, away from westernized society, first with a peaceable tribe in the north and then, for the last six months, with the cruel, seemingly heartless, and certainly hostile Mumbanyo, a tribe fascinating to Fen, but intolerable and horrifying to Nell. Her insistence that they leave rankles him, but he is in no position to refuse as the two are living on her grant money; Nell has become famous — or infamous — for a book on the child-rearing practices and sexual freedom in a tribe of Solomon Islanders.

The couple is en route to the town of Angoram, farther down the river, from which they will set off to Australia to find themselves an Aborigine tribe to study. The plan dissolves when they run into Bankson, ''a teetering, disheveled, unaccountably vulnerable bargepole of a man,'' a fellow anthropologist swamped in a sad past — two dead brothers, a difficult, disapproving mother, an attempt at suicide — and consumed with loneliness. He cannot bear to lose their company and promises to find them a tribe close to him, worth extending their stay. So he brings them to the Tam, some seven hours up the river from the tribe Bankson is studying, close enough for him to visit the couple. Nell, drawn to his kindness and genuine interest in her work, is enlivened by his inquiring intelligence; Fen is glad of white male companionship. The coming together of the three produces an emotional, intellectual, and sexual ferment, both creative and destructive.

The novel is told mostly via Bankson's first-person recollections, interleaved with some third-person passages from Nell's point of view and excerpts from her journal. There is no question that Nell and Bankson are the sympathetic characters. Her empathy and genius shine out, as does his considerateness and noncompetitive interest in others' work. Fen, on the other hand, is a stubborn brute, but a three-dimensional one and quite as interesting as the other two. King makes this particular man's plight of playing second fiddle to a woman palpable: After all, ''he had planned on his name becoming a household word, not hers.'' Perhaps, but Fen has written only one monograph; his present work is stuck, and it is likely to stay that way given his proclivities. As Nell sees it, ''Fen didn't want to study the natives, he wanted to be a native. His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity?. It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public.… His interest lay in experiencing, in doing. Thinking was derivative. Dull. The opposite of living.''

In contrast, Nell puts up with the hardships of primitive living as unfortunate necessities, and solely to experience the intellectual rush of understanding. Indeed, the novel's title comes from what she likes best about her work; it is, she says ''that moment about two months in, when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp…at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria.'' Even though, as she also points out, this sense of complete understanding is a delusion, it is a sensation she lives for. Hers is the life of the mind.

As such, Fen is, to say the least, not a good match. King lets us see clearly how much fragile psychological capital he has invested in, for instance, rejecting Nell's observation that in Tam society women have the upper hand. And King lets us take in fully — to our dismay — how Fen becomes involved in the novel's great tragedy, one that brings together, disastrously, the ruined life of a villager recently returned from a stint in the mines and an irreplaceable sacred object that represents to this anthropologist manqué, a short-cut to fame.

The baldness of Fen's attraction to the sort of life he finds in native society, as well as his craving for success in Western eyes, sets Nell's own desires in relief. What she yearns for is, in part, a reaction to her oppressive marriage, her intellectual vitality repeatedly triggering her husband's sarcastic sniping and threat of violence; but her dreams also make up one wave in an incoming tide of ideas. She is looking for what can only be called a Western ideal in native culture: In her journal she writes: ''I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world. But the world is deaf. The world — and really I mean the West — has no interest in change or self-improvement?''

Margaret Mead was, of course, among those who gave the struggle for this sort of individual freedom and personal fulfillment common currency in our culture. The ideas are hackneyed now — there is hardly an advertisement that doesn't invoke them — but the reader does feel how fresh and attractive they were at this juncture, and more than that: how both Nell's intellect and the circumstances of her repressive marriage, contributed to their formulation.

Even though Euphoria is wrapped up with the history of ideas, it is a novel first and foremost. So, here is a tip: You will spare yourself a good deal of puzzlement by understanding from the outset that, while four of the characters are inspired by the lives and personalities of four real anthropologists, their fates are entirely different. In other words, this is not a fictional retelling of historical even but a work of art with its own plot and integrity. Notwithstanding, it is also a novel that gains resonance and depth from actual people, their relationships, and the ideas that sprang out of them.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802192516
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 13,273
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Lily King

Lily King’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour won the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second book, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Father of the Rain was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year, and winner of the 2010 New England Book Award for Fiction. Lily King lives with her family in Maine.
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Read an Excerpt


If the Tam weren’t a good fit, they would go to Australia. This was my last chance to get it right. And I could tell she was skeptical. But Teket had been many times to the Tam to visit his cousin there, and even if everything he told me about the culture and the beauty of the area were half true, it should satisfy this pair of choosy anthropologists. ‘I should have brought you here straightaway.’ I said, not entirely meaning to say it aloud. ‘It was selfish of me.’
She smiled, and told Fen not to kill us before we got there.
After several hours I saw the tributary we needed to take. Fen turned us toward it, letting in a little water on the port side. The tributary was a narrow ribbon of yellowish brown water. The sun disappeared and the air was cool on our faces.
‘Water’s low,’ Fen said.
‘You’re all right,’ I said, scanning for glimpses of the bottom.
The rains hadn’t come yet. The banks here rose high, walls of mud and coiling white roots. I watched carefully for the break Teket had told me about. He’d said it was soon after the turn. In a motorized boat it would come fast.
‘Here,’ I pointed right.
‘Here? Where?’
‘Right here.’ We were nearly past it.
The boat lurched, then slid into a tiny dark canal between what Teket called kopi, bushes that looked like freshwater mangroves.
‘You cannot be serious, Bankson,’ Fen said.
‘They’re fens, aren’t they?’ Nell said. ‘Fen among the fens.’
‘This is a fen? Jesus, help us,’ he said. The passage was wide enough for only one canoe. Branches scraped our arms and because we’d slowed down, insects came at us in clouds. ‘You could get bloody lost in here.’
Teket had told me there was only one path through. ‘Just follow the water.’
‘Like I’m going to do anything else. Fuck, the bugs are thick.’
We motored through this close corridors a long time, their trust in me weakening by the minute. I wanted to tell them everything I’d heard about the Tam, but best to have them arrive discouraged and skeptical.
‘Sure you have enough petrol for this?’ Fen asked.
And just then the passage opened up.
The lake was enormous, at least twelve miles across, the water jet black and ringed by bright green hills. Fen pulled up on the throttle to idle and we swayed there for a moment. Across the water was a long beach, and, mirroring it in the water twenty yards offshore, a bright white sandbar. Or what I thought was a sandbar, until all at once it lifted, broke apart, and thinned into the air.
‘Osprey,’ I said. ‘White osprey.’
‘Oh my, Bankson,’ Nell said. ‘This is glorious.’
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Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Lily King

A chance discovery in a used bookstore led the novelist Lily King to a biography of Margaret Mead, the anthropologist whose controversial 1928 work Coming of Age in Samoa would help prepare the way for the sexual revolution decades later. In its pages, she says, she found the outlines of a love triangle in the jungles of New Guinea, one that drew Mead and two fellow anthropologists into a dynamic so compelling that, through the composition of her own award-winning novel Father of the Rain, it tugged at King's imagination as if begging to be transmuted into fiction.

Now that episode of literary obsession has yielded Euphoria, a re-imagining of the weeks spent by Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson circling one another in an ever-tighter orbit, even as they lived among and studied the tribespeople of an isolated tropical jungle. It's an appropriately feverish story in which three scientists quickly discover that their ability to apply an intellectual framework to their experience is soon overwhelmed by the intensity and unpredictability of their own needs. And despite their reliance on mastery of the languages of their subjects, as one writes, "words aren't always the most reliable thing."

Lily King spoke with me just before the publication of Euphoria about the genesis of the novel, and how its gripping inventions relate to the lives of the woman and men who inspired the book. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: This book is a real departure for you in terms of subject matter.

Lily King: Yes.

BNR: What was that experience like, approaching a book that has a specific historical setting and is kind of connected to the real lives of rather famous people?

LK: Well, it wasn't just a departure of subject matter. It was a departure of place. It was a departure of time. It was a departure of narrator. (I have a male, British narrator). And then the whole historical research piece of it was an additional, unfamiliar challenge. Sometimes you get these ideas for books or for stories, and you think, "Mmm, I can do that." This one, I was like, "Oh, no. No-no-no. I can't do that. That's a great idea. Can't do it."

BNR: So what was it that changed that from, "I can't do this" to "I'm doing this"?

LK: It was completely my own curiosity. I wasn't looking for a novel — I already was writing part Father of the Rain. But I inadvertently got a biography of Margaret Mead, and I read this one chapter when she was in New Guinea with her second husband, and they were doing fieldwork, and I saw how she met Gregory Bateson...

BNR: Who became her third husband after.

LK: Yes, and she fell madly in love with him, and they worked together up the Sepik River for five months, the three of them, and just had this really wild romantic triangle...or love triangle. I was so interested in her... I couldn't believe I didn't know that, even though I hardly knew anything really about Margaret Mead, except for a few books that she wrote, and that she was quite outspoken, and one of the first feminists really to get a lot of attention in America. But I had no idea about her love life and particularly about that crazy moment. I just thought=; that would be an amazing idea for a novel.

So then I put it aside, but I kept on going back to it. I got a biography of Bateson — I wanted to see what that person's version of that moment was. Then I read Coming of Age in Samoa. I would just get these books and kind of paw through them. Then I started taking notes. I got a green notebook, I remember, and I just started taking it more seriously. Then the minute I started getting notes, I started getting ideas for what a novel could look like and what might happen — scenes.

It was very much all working to inspire me, and getting me fictional ideas. Although I was thinking, "OK, I'm just going to tell the story. I'm going to call her 'Margaret' and he's going to be called 'Gregory' and he's going to be called 'Reo.' "

BNR: But that's not what you wound up doing.

LK: That's not what happened. So I started writing it, years later, and immediately realized that I had a completely different story on my hands, and they would have to be very much their own people. I wasn't necessarily true to all the tribes. I wanted to make my own sort of amalgams. I wanted to take the interesting parts of the tribes I read about, and put them into one tribe or a couple of tribes. I just wanted more freedom. I couldn't color within the lines.

BNR: You build your story on the love triangle that hinges on Nell Stone, who is based on Margaret Mead... She is already famous in a kind of almost overnight-sensation way for writing what in the real world was Mead's book on Samoa.

LK: Yes, Coming of Age in Samoa.

BNR: Coming of Age in Samoa. And she now has written a very similar book in this novel. She's married to another anthropologist. He's Australian, I believe.

LK: Yes, he's Australian. In real life, he was from New Zealand.

BNR: He and she are in the Sepik River in New Guinea. Can you talk a little bit about why New Guinea and why the Sepik River?

LK: I definitely wanted to stay true to that area, because they had already done the research on it, so I could use that — I didn't have to go find my own area. That was part of the reason I was so attracted to the idea of it initially. Anthropologists at that time were desperate for places that had not been transformed by missionaries and had not been destroyed by Western corporations coming in and extracting whatever they could extract from the land. So New Guinea was really uncharted territory. They went in '33. There were huge, huge parts of that country that had never, ever been seen by a white man or a woman, and the missionaries I think stayed more on the coats, they didn't penetrate all the way up those rivers that far — it was pristine. They could see those tribes for exactly how they'd been for thousands of years.

BNR: So they were really the pioneers.

LK: Truly. Everybody in Margaret Mead's life told her, especially when she went to Samoa in 1924, not to go. Even Boas, her mentor, would have preferred her to go to the Native Americans instead of going that far. They were very, very concerned, and they made her stay in the governor's house. It just hadn't been done. A female anthropologist hadn't gone to the South Pacific before.

BNR: And yet she was extraordinarily successful in gaining understanding and really putting herself in the midst of these communities.

LK: Yes, she really was. There's this great quote from her, where she said about her husband Reo: "He knows the grammar better, but I always know pig has died." I love that.

BNR: So let's talk about your character Nell, based on Margaret Mead. She exerts... From the very first moment that both you meet her through her own journals and you see her through the eyes of Bankson, she exerts this fascination and this charisma over almost everyone that she meets. Did you have a feeling of her power over others as you were writing?

LK: That was definitely my intention. But I feel like in fiction you have to be so careful — I'm always so scared of overdoing anything, so I am always pulling back, pulling back. Then when a reader like you says something like that, think, "Oh, good. That did come through. I did mean that." But it's not like I was necessarily saying it out loud to myself. You just want them to be their own people and you don't want to force anything on them.

But that's certainly what I read about Margaret Mead. It's funny, because I tried to write it from her perspective. I tried to have a first-person narrator who was a Margaret Mead–like character. That kind of personality is very different than mine. I'm not Type A. I'm not very bossy, although maybe my kids and my husband would disagree. I kind of had a hard time really navigating how she would be. I found it so much easier to be him responding to her.

BNR: "Him" being Andrew Bankson.

LK: Exactly.

BNR: At the beginning of the novel he's come to a kind of a personal crisis — you introduce him sort just on the other side of a suicide attempt. Why does he come back from the brink? What opened him up to this experience with Nell?

LK: You know, I have to go back to Gregory Bateson, because I read this biography of him. I completely fell in love with him. As Margaret Mead said in her very first letter to Ruth Benedict, he was so vulnerable. The way I portray Bankson and the loss of his brothers is what happened. He did lose two brothers in the way that I have him lose them in the novel. He was in an absolute crisis. In terms of his work, he really had no idea what he was doing. He was so lost. He had no training. The British school was so different from the American school. It was sort of more hands-on and more aggressive.

I drew all that from the biography I read about him. And it did seem that he'd come to this crisis, and then realized, "OK..." I don't even know why it didn't work, or if he'd backed out of it at the last minute, or what happened. But I just had to imagine all that. And then, when I have him go to Angoram, where he meets them, He couldn't be more open. He could not be more ready for people to step into his life and help him, amuse him, educate him — everything. I had to bring him to a place of absolute despair and need for them to suck him up so quickly.

BNR: He is clearly transfixed by both them, by Nell and by Fen — the character based on Margaret Mead's first husband, Reo. How did that characterization come about? He really is a fascinating and complex personality in this book.

LK: I couldn't draw him very much from the original texts in Mead's life. She writes about him, particularly to Ruth Benedict, a lot. But he never wrote a book. There's not a biography about him. He was, I think, by some accounts, quite destroyed by the breakup with Mead. I had to imagine Fen and fit him into the book wholesale. I guess I worried about him being too one-dimensional — my big concern about him was that he was just going to be sort of pure evil, and certainly that's not what I meant to do. I think that they were in a pressure cooker, and the very worst — and perhaps best, in some cases — sides of them were coming out. I really feel like they are just being squished-squished- squished, and you just don't know what's going to come out of them.

BNR: One of the things that comes out is Fen's jealousy, and a complex kind of jealousy, in a way. You get the sense that Bankson is, of course, very jealous of the relationship between Nell and Fen, but that Fen sees an incipient bond between his wife and Bankson. And it's hard to know who he desires more, since he you portray him as having feelings about both of them, essentially.

LK: You can't decide who Fen wants more?

BNR: Exactly.

LK: I very much wanted to convey that confusion. I have only alluded to it, but he has had such a complicated childhood, and has a rash of desires that confuse him. Yet he also has sort of a childlike, undeveloped desire with a capital D for everything — sort of a want, and maybe a hole in him? I would have called this novel Possession had not A. S. Byatt already beat me to it, because I do think that really what motivates Fen is this desire for possession of all kinds.

BNR: And that ultimately plays out on kind a fantasy of his possession of a sacred tribal object he decides that he's going to take it. Which seems, in some ways, the greatest violation that you kind of play out here

LK: Yes. And really a violation of his work as a scientist, and his sort of responsibility as a scientist. So it's a professional breach and a personal breach.

BNR: There's a fourth element in this sort of triangle between Nell and Fen and Banks, and that's the Tam, the people that they're among. One of the figures that emerges out of that community... We only get to know the Tam kind of obliquely — it's really Nell who gets to know them.

LK: Right.

BNR: But a few figures begin to kind of emerge. One of them is Zambon. How would you pronounce his name, by the way?

LK: Exactly the way you pronounced it. [Zam-bone.] Of course, I made it up, so we can pronounce it any way you want.

BNR: So Zambon is a really interesting character, and can you say a little bit about how he entered the story for you and at what point you said, "I want to include this person's story" or have this enter the drama.

LK: I had heard... Somewhere along the line, I read about how one tribe, in some village, waiting for somebody to come back, or maybe a few of them had been taken away... No, actually I read about a tribe where half the men had been taken away by these "blackbirders." Just the notion of this word, "blackbirders," where these white recruiters come and take away men from the indigenous population...

BNR: What were they taking them to do?

LK: They were taking them to work in the mines and on plantations in New Guinea. There was copper mining, silver mining, gold mining all in operation. Today, it's terrifying, the kind of mining that's happening in New Guinea, and it's still destroying tribes left and right. But it had definitely already begun.

BNR: So "blackbirding" is essentially abducting people into a kind of slavery?

LK: I would say lured away. I don't know about abducting. I don't think it was anything like slave traders in Africa — but certainly they were lured away. As I understand it, mining company people wold arrive and they would have knives and salt and matches and all these sort of magical things, and they would say, "Come with us and spend a year, and we will bring you home, and you'll have all of these things..." Quite honestly, it's mostly out of my imagination, because I just read a little bit about this idea.

BNR: But in the story, Zambon has been taken, has been lured away.

LK: Yes. I imagined him as sort of their best and their brightest. He was their sort of symbol of young, strong, talented male, and then he left.

BNR: This company says, "Come see the world."

LK: My idea is that the tribe was promised it would just be a short amount of time, and now they feel like they've been waiting for years and years. Then he does come back; he's been beaten, and he looks like he's been whipped on his back. Badly abused. Badly fed. And he ran away. He escaped. And thinking the whole time, "I just need to get back to my village." Then he gets back to his village, and he can't fit in any more, and he suffers a terrible, terrible existential crisis.

BNR: And winds up embroiled in what leads to one of the tragic climaxes of the novel. At what point when you were writing this, or was there a point, when you thought, "This is a suspense story; a story where you're waiting for the sword to fall"? There's a sense of moving forward toward some real dark possibilities, not all of which come to pass. But there's a great deal of suspense in this book, and I'm wondering how much of that was intention and how much of that just emerged from your telling the story.

LK: I don't know. I love suspense. But usually how I handle suspense in my novels is emotional tension, and you kind of feel things roiling, and you're not really sure where they're going to go. And it's funny, the tension is more physical. It's more physically threatening.

BNR: It's emotional as well. But there is a threat of violence that permeates all of these experiences, and it comes from multiple sources.

LK: Yes. Just going from the Western world to this area, already their lives are more in peril. Nell's really suffering from wounds that won't heal, and they all have malaria, and they spike these fevers — and certainly people die left and right from these fevers.

I knew that it was going to have some drama toward the end. But it was mostly organic from my notes. I just got these ideas. I didn't set out in any way to write a novel with a violent ending. But I did get these ideas. I don't want to give anything away. But I do remember the moment when I actually had a dead body on my hands. It was my first dead body. I've never done that — Someone does die at the end of Father of the Rain, but it's way offstage. I had to deal with several dead bodies in this book. That one in particular I remember writing that and feeling a particular sort of thrilling sensation I had never had before.

BNR: One of the things that really gives one a jolt, I think, early in the book is the first time that you see Nell and Fen have sex. It's a very raw and real moment between them, and it's one that exposes, in a very evocative way, the dynamic between them, and Fen's mix of tenderness and brutality.

LK: Yeah.

BNR: It's only when Bankson is there, who has such a very different personality, that you see her change her understanding, and I think she stops being able to ignore this kind of violence that Fen sort of can't shake, that seems to be part of him. Was that a difficult scene to write, or did that come really naturally in that early part of the book?

LK: Yeah, it came right out. I have to say that. That first chapter is the first thing I wrote. I didn't really anticipate it. It just kind of happened. I think my agent and my editor had me tone it down a little bit, because they didn't want Fen to come across as...I don't know, too...

BNR: A monster.

LK: Exactly. A monster, right at the beginning. But I do think that hopefully the reader learns that she had to be very passive in that situation, because to fight Fen was to initiate a tremendous battle, and she was too exhausted. She was just...

BNR: Fen is not unlike, in many ways, Gardner Amory in Father of the Rain. They both have this capacity for violence.

LK: There are similarities there, I think, as well as many differences. But there is an unpredictability and a rage, really, at the core. And a fear, matched by anger.

BNR: One of the things that happens as Fen and Bankson and Nell are all working together, which is one of the euphoric moments of the book. They work through their very different and often kind of competing approaches to understanding the people that they are among, and they come upon this method of charting the different cultures that they have been embedding themselves with. They call it the "grid."

LK: Yes.

BNR: It seems to emerge almost organically from the gestalt of the three of them. It's the three of them at their most productive and kind of synched up. It's a sort of scientific ecstasy that they find themselves in, in being alive at this moment. Did that have a real-life analog for Mead, and was anything like that produced from this experience?

LK: Yes, I completely stole it. They did come up with... They called it the Squares. It was very much the same sort of thing with East and West. They put people in different categories, and they were really excited about it. They cabled back to Boas, "We've had this huge breakthrough; coming home now." Then, in the letters to Ruth and to Bateson when she gets back to New York, she so often refers to people by their direction. "Oh, he's so southern." "Because he's northern, blah- blah-blah." "Because she's so Western." She does that for years and years. But then they all go their separate ways for a little while, and then she divorces Reo and she marries Bateson. They never get back together to sort of make anything of it. Also, the cultural climate is really starting to intensify with Social Darwinism and Nazism on the rise, and this sense of sort of biological determinism that they don't believe in and they are trying to fight in their anthropology, and so Mead felt that it was going to get misinterpreted.

BNR: That it would wind up being used as a tool to kind of classify people. Here are the northern people, and they should be running everything, and the southern people... LK: Right. She worried about how political it could become. That's what she said, anyway, that held her back. That's why I have Bankson take it and what happens to it, because I wanted to play out that idea. Well, what if it had? Would that have happened?

BNR: Can we talk about Helen — based on the real-life anthropologist Ruth Benedict — to whom Nell writes throughout? She and Nell are colleagues.

LK: Yes. Colleagues, lovers...

BNR: Former lovers. And it's a very important relationship for Nell throughout this book.

LK: The first mini-draft, when my agent and my editor both saw the very first one, Nell's journals were not journals — they were letters to Helen. So really, it was kind of a love parallelogram. Helen wasn't writing back, but she was writing out. Nell was working out feelings for her, as well as feelings for her husband, as well as feelings for Bankson. I felt that it maybe complicated things too much, and I thought that I could get a better...fuller sense of now if she wasn't writing these letters. So I changed it to journals. But she did even play a larger role for a while, kind of getting me to the point where I switched over.

But she's extremely important to Nell. Fen has prevented her from having a relationship with her any more, and so there's this sense of her being someone she can't really full have, but still wants. So there's that desire that I think pops through it.

BNR: Am I wrong in remembering that in the real world, Mead and Benedict had a long-standing friendship and close relationship? Long after the time that Mead spent in New Guinea.

LK: Yes. Although it became more of a friendship, and they moved on to other people romantically. Benedict died quite early. Mead lived probably thirty years after her. BNR: You preface the book with a couple of quotations. You sort of paired them up, and the people... It's interesting. Rather than choosing Gregory Bateson, you choose Ruth Benedict to match against Margaret Mead, and you quote Margaret Mead — "Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world" — but then you have Benedict saying, "Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination." That seems very central to this book — that so much of what happens in their lives, and in all of our lives, is, in our heads.

LK: I think that quote hopefully resonates with the whole novel, given that it's told by Bankson, and he's looking back on this time, and this is his take on it — and it's only his take on it. His memory is imbued with a lot of nostalgia.

BNR: This is a tragedy in its arc. But that sense of the euphoric manages to be one of the emotions that mingles in there.

LK: That's so good. I'm glad.

BNR: I'm wondering how you did that.

LK: I know that I loved writing the ending so much that it was really the place that I felt like I had come home, in some way. When I got to the very last scene, I felt it so viscerally, and... It's funny. I didn't feel the tragic as much as I felt sort of just the poignancy of where he was, and his hand hits the glass, and just the longing... I think that's all very beautiful. And I'm pleased if you felt that it came through.

BNR: Do you feel differently about Mead and about these people now than when you started? Or did Nell become a sufficiently different personality that you still feel the same about Mead and her life as when you began?

LK: That's a really good question. I do feel that Mead and Nell are quite separate in my mind. I really gave up trying to create Margaret Mead long ago. And yet, I have an incredible tenderness towards really them all, and I just hope so much that I haven't violated them or hurt them, that if they were able to read the book, that they would feel honored and not sort of sullied.

June 4, 2014

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2014

    Interesting. Some odd and damaged people!

    Very interesting. It really make you want to read more about Margaret Mead. This novel holds your attention from lots of angles: interesting culture and setting, a romance, evil in many ways, and definately damaged human beings - morally, sexually, and emotionally. Gripping. Highly recommended for the reader - with a warning that this book is rated at least "R"! Another book during this time period that is great is The Partisan by William Jarvis. This historical fiction also has a great romance, evil characters, but has great and noble female and male characters who rise above. I would give both books A++++++, but for different reasons.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2014

    Highly Recommended.

    Historical novels are my favorite reads and in my search for another I was drawn to Lily King’s “Euphoria,” having taken courses in cultural anthropology and linguistics in college. This novel is a work of fiction though drawn from a period in Margaret Mead’s study of a tribal community in 1930’s Papua New Guinea. The protagonist anthropologist in the novel, Nell, together with her scientist husband Fen and anthropologist friend Bankson, share a small hut while conducting participant/observer field studies of the female dominated Tam tribe. The three form passionate intellectual and emotional attachments to one another as well as with their subjects in the tribal community. Tensions build as each chapter unfolds and I was captivated from beginning to end.

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  • Posted June 19, 2014

    Boring and pointless. The only compelling parts were those that

    Boring and pointless. The only compelling parts were those that describe the native culture. The rest was dull and went nowhere.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2014

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