Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King – A Fictionalized Margaret Mead

A thrilling page turner, and punch in the gut

Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. July 1933. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (139a)

Euphoria is a thrilling page-turner by Lily King about three talented anthropologists caught in a torrid love triangle. However, euphoria is not how I felt when I closed the book much too soon on the fictionalized version of the famous Margaret Mead, her second husband Reo Fortune, and  third husband Gregory Batemen. Instead I felt like I had been punched in my stomach. I grieved along with the narrator and needed to reread the chaotic opening a second time.

Lily King changes the names of the characters making it clear that this is a work of fiction and not biography. Mead, Fortune, and Bateman become Nell Stone, Fenwick Schulyer and Andrew Bankson. Bankson narrates the novel set along the Septic River in Papua New Guinea in 1932. It’s Christmas Eve when Bankson meets up with Nell and Fen, who are not in a celebratory mood. Nell suffers from a host of maladies: malaria fever, lesions, and a broken ankle. Later she reveals she recently suffered a miscarriage. She tells Bankson, “Maybe you noticed — there’s sort of a stench of failure about us.” Still Bankson is captivated by “pocket-sized” Nell, and although she and her husband were heading to Australia to study the Aborigines, Bankson convinces them to stay, for not only does he feel a connection to Nell but he is desperately lonely for companionship.

The book is not solely narrated by Bankson. Interspersed is journal entries from Nell, who reveals that she has growing feelings for Bankson. Predictably, a love triangle ensues but the climatic/euphoric moment is not shared in a bed, but around a living room and dining room table where the trio of intellectuals stay up all night drunk on their ideas and conversation and create a cross-cultural personality grid that will make them all equally famous. There is clear resentment between the very successful Nell and moody, lesser known Fen, and near the end of the book his actions to independently make his mark has dire consequences on all of the characters.

Lily King’s inspiration comes from learning that Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson had worked together in the Septic region for a five month period in 1932, where they collaborated to create their own theory of culture and personality. King writes on her webpage that “it was that dynamic between these three academics, these three people who had devoted their lives to piecing together the great spectrum of human behavior but were now wrestling mightily with their own, that drew me to this story. But I did not stick to the facts.”

mead and bateman 1938

Margaret Mead and Gregory Batemen typing up field notes in Papua New Guinea. 1938. Library of Congress.

Indeed, this novel does veer from their history, and I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the woman I read about in my freshman cultural anthropology textbook to the character in this work of fiction. The real Margaret Mead pioneered cultural anthropology. She studied native people and cultures by fully immersing herself in a village to live alongside a tribe. In the 1920’s, this was ground breaking. Her book Coming of Age in Samoa published in 1928 created a big stir. She contrasts prim Western ideas about sex to the more broad-minded Samoan attitude toward sexual relations and sexual identities. Many believe that her ideas influenced the sexual revolution in the 1960’s. Mead’s other interests focused on child rearing and women’s rights in traditional cultures. In recent years, Mead’s research has come under attack and scrutiny. Many criticize that Mead’s impressions were colored by her own personality and opinions on sexuality. Though Mead never identified as a lesbian or bisexual, letters make it clear that she had romantic relationships throughout her life with men and women. Regardless of the controversy, Margaret Mead is considered the most influential anthropologist in the twentieth century.

By changing names and fictionalizing events, Lily King humanizes a figure like the legendary Margaret Mead. By the end of the book, I felt caught off guard by how much I was fascinated with the complexity of Nell Stone. She is complicated and full of contradictions – ambitious, always working, sexually fluid, un-possessive, yet maternal and desirous of a baby of her own. As Bankson seeks to understand her, she seeks something even more elusive, euphoria. Nell says that for her euphoria is “that moment two months in (to field study), when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place,” inevitably “followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything.”  At the end of Lily King’s Euphoria that’s how I felt – I thought I understood these engrossing characters and their situation, but I did not.

About Kristen LePine
KRISTEN LEPINE is the co-founder and Executive Director of Historic Heroines. An accomplished writer, educator and mother, Kristen is often inspired by history and current events. She wrote about Nellie Bly and mental health care in CRACKED POTS, a play commissioned by Theatre J in Washington DC. Currently she is working on a historical novel set in ancient Sparta. Visit her at www.kristenlepine.com.
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