Book Review: Euphoria, by Lily King

Euphoria“… the story you know is never the real one.”

Euphoria is an elegant, heartfelt exploration of love, jealousy, and pride in a wholly unique setting. Love triangles are nothing new in literature, so the fact that one figures so prominently in Lily King’s story could have easily caused it to devolve into a fairly standard affair (no pun intended). King is too intelligent a writer for that, and Euphoria is too carefully crafted.

It takes its inspiration from anthropologist Margaret Mead, but spins her life into an original tale. Here, we meet Nell Stone and her bad boy anthropologist husband Fen after two failures trying to study native tribes in New Guinea. Prior to that, Nell earned great fame after publishing a book about the sexual norms of natives, which shocked the world and made her name (even as it caused more hardcore academics to question the way she opened up her writing to be accessible to a broader audience). Most would feel enormous pressure to follow up that success, but Nell is so in love with the work that she’s eager to get back in the field and learn more (the title refers to the sensation she gets when she thinks she has made a connection with the tribe she is studying). Fen, on the other hand, is making that difficult. Already restless and cavalier by nature, he is having a hard time living in his wife’s shadow. Nell is trying to find a balance between doing her work and letting Fen have his share of the spotlight, but after their first two ventures back in the field end in failure they both find themselves on the verge of desperation.

Enter Bankson, an anthropologist who has been in the region for two years to study the Kiona tribe. Lonely and desperate himself (he was saved from a suicide attempt by the natives he is studying, who thought he was foolishly swimming with his clothes on to collect stones from the river bottom), Bankson seizes the opportunity to have colleagues nearby and sets up Nell and Fen with a tribe down the river from him.

Inevitably, their lives become entwined and, perhaps even more inevitably, disaster looms over everything that follows. Along the way, King makes strikingly poignant observations about anthropology, language, culture, success, academia, mainstream entertainment, and sexuality. If her segments about love are a touch rote, then, it is imminently forgivable.

The one truly disappointing note, and this is a bit of a nit pick on my part, is that for all the remarkable development and depth King imbues Nell and Bankson with, Fen remains flat and impenetrable. A large part of this is due to the fact that the narrative itself alternates between perspectives that favor Bankson and Nell’s points of view (Bankson in first person, Nell in scraps of letters and in third person chapters that emphasize her actions and thoughts). There’s a conscious decision on King’s part not to do the same for Fen, and it makes him inscrutable. If King’s intention was to hinge the plot on his actions being a twist, that’s a failure because you pretty much know exactly where the story is going–and that he will be the driving force in getting it there. It’s just a shame; we know so much about Bankson and Nell. They have so much depth. Fen, in comparison, is like a cartoon character. The fact that so much of his storyline is left unresolved only deepens the disappointment.

Perhaps the lack of depth from Fen, a critical corner in King’s triangle, contributes to the lack of, um euphoria the reader gets despite the striking observations. Still, Euphoria is a magnetic read with some sharp turns that is well worth your time.

Grade: A-


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