Book Review | Euphoria, by Lily King

Posted By Whitney | 9 comments

When we had Sarah over to guest post a while back, she confessed her obsession with all things nerdy – science love, medical history, all that business.

Normally, I wouldn’t say that’s my cup of tea. Sure, I love The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as much as Sarah did, but I don’t typically go seeking out books inspired by science. In fact, I think I picked up Euphoria primarily because the cover is beautiful. Whoops.

I think that I was only a few pages into Lily King’s Euphoria when I recommended it to Sarah, and now that I have closed the last chapter I can confidently recommend Euphoria to just about everyone.

Simultaneously a book about science, love, exploration, exploitation, and personal evolution

Euphoria manages to meld together fiction and biography in a magical way. While ultimately Euphoria is a novel, it is also a well researched exploration of the early stages of anthropology and the last months of Margaret Mead’s life. The combination means that you can take away a lot more than you might expect from your average novel.

Of course, Euphoria does not pretend to be fact.

Although Margaret Mead (Nell in Euphoria) did spend time exploring the Sepik River, along with Reo Fortune (Fen) and Gregory Bateson (Bankson), the novel’s account of their research and relationships is fiction. I don’t know how much of the love triangle, or Nell’s bisexuality and relationship with Helen (based on anthropologist Ruth Benedict) are true, but it certainly makes for a bit of a steamy read!

But through the careful narrative, you definitely get a strong sense of what it must have been like to explore yet undiscovered cultures and societies alongside Mead and her contemporaries.

There certainly was no cell signal in Papua in the 1920s…

Seriously – the last time I was in that part of the world, I was in Indonesia and you could get a cell signal on island or mountain. The world is really a different place than these extreme remoteness of communities who had never been encountered by European cultures.

Anthropology has changed a lot as a science since those days.

King even touches on some of what could be controversial moments – describing the heated debate of theory in the field, and even how those theories were used to justify eugenics and cultural superiority by the Nazis. Today’s anthropologist might have a lot more criticism on the ideas King has Nell, Fen and Bankson tossing around in Euphoria. Yet their debates and confrontations make for an incredibly interesting narrative!

I loved how King melded fact and fiction in Euphoria, and how she managed to tackle complex issues with a healthy discussion and debate between characters.

And while I think Sarah may come for the science, I’m pretty sure that anyone will stay for the story.


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    • It was SO GOOD! It’s kind of rare that I go into reading a book with basically zero expectations, but I really didn’t know what I was getting with this one. Turns out, fantastic!

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  1. Great review, Whitney!!

    I read this book last year over break after my first semester of graduate school. I think I would still absolutely love this book no matter what conditions that I read it in because it’s so beautifully written about romance and the fulfillment of doing good “work” and craftsmanship. However, as a woman who hopes to be a social scientist, I extra-appreciate it! For me, I just loved the part when she had tensions with her co-author/husband about her beliefs related to the gender roles. I knew more about the controversial parts of Margaret Mead — and mostly the post-colonialist complaints about her legacy of “Othering” tribes, but I think this is what makes this book excellent fiction — you forgive her faults because you understand her unique social path. I also love how devoted she was to her work — and the process of creating it, not just the fame that comes afterwards.

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    • I totally agree about how much she is dedicated to her work. It’s unique for a novel, particularly a novel about a woman, to spend so much time exploring a professional struggle / enthusiasm / drive. You could see how much Mead was committed to her work, and how that commitment manifested in conflicts with her partner. I also love an ambiguous ending

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      • I totally agree! I hadn’t thought about how unusual it is for a novel about a woman to be devoted to her work, but it really is. We have so many books about men and their crafts and passion for work…Maybe that’s another reason why I love it so much.

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  2. I’ve not heard of this one, but I do agree that the cover is lovely! 🙂 Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on this week!

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    • That whole “never judge a book by its cover” thing is proved wrong once and for all! 😉

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  3. This book looks super interesting! It’s not what I’m looking to read right now, but I’m glad you liked it, so I may have to read it sometime. 🙂

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    • Keep it on your long list – it was definitely something interesting that I wouldn’t have normally read, but really enjoyed!

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