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Inspired by the true story of a woman who changed the way we understand our world.

In 1933 three young, gifted anthropologists are thrown together in the jungle of New Guinea. They are Nell Stone, fascinating, magnetic and famous for her controversial work studying South Pacific tribes, her intelligent and aggressive husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, who stumbles into the lives of this strange couple and becomes totally enthralled. Within months the trio are producing their best ever work, but soon a firestorm of fierce love and jealousy begins to burn out of control, threatening their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives...

256 pages, Hardcover

First published June 3, 2014

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About the author

Lily King

17 books4,353 followers
Lily King grew up in Massachusetts and received her B.A. in English Literature from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and Creative Writing at several universities and high schools in this country and abroad. Lily's new novel, Euphoria, was released in June 2014. It has drawn significant acclaim so far, being named an Amazon Book of the Month, on the Indie Next List, and hitting numerous summer reading lists from The Boston Globe to O Magazine and USA Today. Reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Emily Eakin called Euphoria, “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace.”

Lily’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second, 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. Her third novel, Father of the Rain (2010), was a New York Times Editors Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year and winner of both the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Maine Fiction Award.

Lily is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Writer's Award. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 9,112 reviews
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
845 reviews806 followers
August 12, 2015
Three anthropologists form a circumstantial friendship in the 1930s while studying tribes in Papua, New Guinea. American Nell Stone (who is inspired by Margaret Mead) already has a best selling book on natives of the Solomon Islands. Nell's Australian husband, Fen, is jealous of her success, and is often reproachful and competitive. He is desperate to make a name for himself, and, instead of collaborating with Nell, he keeps his work hidden. However, Fen admits to a genuine regard for his wife's work.

The couple had recently studied the Mumbanyo, a frighteningly barbaric tribe, and left abruptly, at Nell's request, resigning to move to Australia to study the Aboriginal peoples. Fen wanted to stay in New Guinea; he is after a totemic flute that he learned of during their last days with the Mumbanyo, and believes that securing it is the key to his glory. However, out of love and dedication to Nell, he capitulated.

Andrew Bankston is a tall, lanky, wistful anthropologist who recently failed at suicide. He met Nell and Fen quite spontaneously, and talked them out of Australia and back into New Guinea, promising to find them a stimulating tribe to study. He corrals them on his motorized boat, and helps them settle in with the Tam people, about seven hours from where he is studying with the Kionas. Periodically, he comes to visit, and their developing friendship provides much of the adventure and drama of the novel. Each of them has their own talents and approach to ethnography. Fen thrives on experience, on doing, saturating in the culture by joining the inhabitants, almost impetuously. He's a hustler, and can learn languages swiftly--"he absorbs words like sunlight." Nell is a thinker with a deep empathy and imagination. Language is limited, in her estimation.

"You have to pay much more attention when you can't understand the words. Once comprehension comes, so much else falls away...words aren't always the most reliable thing."

Andrew is an excellent theorist, who ponders the science itself.

"I find I am more interested in this question of subjectivity, and the limited lens of the anthropologist...Perhaps all science is merely self-investigation."

The study of cultural differences by these individuals is not a tendentious prop to raise our consciousness. Rather, there's more of an allegory that coils and tightens, and ultimately astonishes. The intersection between the anthropologists and the tribes that they study is the predominant theme and the fulcrum of suspense in this story. I finished this novel a few days ago, but the parallels between the text, subject matter, and reader continue to heighten and captivate me. As the story progressed, it revealed clues that were intensified by the reader's observation of the anthropologists and the their immersion in the cultures.

"When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read their analysis?"

And, too, there's the correlation to quantum physics that Nell and Andrew consider, i.e. that objectivity is impossible because the application of observation changes the matter being studied.

Although narrated in the first person by Andrew, the journal entries by Nell provide the potent drama, often in a subtle manner of extemporaneous observation. I felt like I was living with the Tam people, and exploring their behaviors and customs.

"Fen claims that if you just let go of your brain you find another brain, the group brain, the collective brain, and that it is an exhilarating form of human connection that we have lost in our embrace of the individual except when we go to war. Which is my point exactly."

I applaud everything about this novel--setting, characters, prose, and story. However, it is the voice of the novel--Andrew's and Nell's--that moved me the most. Their back-stories of past losses, and the disclosure of how Fen and Nell met, add dimension to the present. There's a lightness of spirit and yet a poignant acuity of their deepest thoughts and perceptions. The author avoids reductive and clichéd writing and characterizations. This was fresh, buoyant, and tender storytelling.

I've read numerous novels that embrace anthropology; however, this was more fully realized than Berlinski's FIELDWORK, less conspicuous than Yanagihara's PEOPLE IN THE TREES, and not cerebrally self-conscious like Rush's MATING (although I enjoyed all of those books). Lily King's approach is more intimate, and the presence of the reader as observer is exploratory and essential. EUPHORIA is emotionally compelling sans melodrama, gripping in its taut finesse, compassion, and colossal humanity.

"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."
Profile Image for Debbie.
455 reviews2,896 followers
July 13, 2015
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.

That’s the beginning of this gem! I was a goner before I knew what hit me. Don’t worry, the book isn’t full of dead babies, but it’s full of life and gorgeous writing and intriguing characters and I can’t end this sentence because I can’t stop raving about this book.

This is a story based on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, and Nell is the woman playing the part. She and her husband, Fen, are tribe-jumping, quickly packing up and taking off in canoes when things get too dicey. They’re running from a wild tribe, where cannibalism is hinted at, but they settle down with a tamer tribe that will charm the pants off of you. Their culture is rich with rituals and philosophies. You don’t get to know many people in the tribe, but you get to see Nell happily hang out with them. There seems to be a mutual admiration society thing going on. The tribe can tell that she not only is observing them but that she also likes them, that she is warm and kind. She relentlessly explores their everyday lives and is a maniac about keeping copious records. Her drive and passion are part of what makes this book so incredibly rich.

Another researcher, Bankson, joins them (most of the story is told from his point of view), and thus begins a slow-brewing romance. The relationships among the three researchers are complicated and tense. There are times when they all share excited discussions about the research, and it’s contagious. Nell is doing what she was meant to do. And you feel like you are right there beside her.

There is a strong sense of place, but there aren’t any overly long descriptions, yay! I hate it when the writer feels the need to describe every gorgeous, striated leaf in the place. The writer does a great job of letting us use our own imaginations to visualize the details. Some authors don’t know how to do this; King is a pro. I have to laugh that I enjoyed the setting so much—I’m an indoor bunny who recoils from bugs, crocodiles, and heat, and yet I was totally digging this river-side living in the tropics. The setting reminded me a lot of State of Wonder, one of my favorite books, so I’m sure I was predisposed to liking it.

The novel was well edited except for two small things. The writer continually used the construction “try and” when it should have been “try to” (as in “she was going to try AND climb the ladder” instead of the correct “she was going to try TO climb the ladder”). It’s a really common error, and an editor should have fixed it—so that people like me wouldn’t get all twitchy. I know, I know, can you believe I notice this kind of shit? Don’t worry, I drive myself nuts, too. I will try TO refrain from this level of nit-pickiness in the future, but I’ll probably fail.

The other small nit is that Nell has a broken ankle but manages to climb up and down ladders. Maybe the writer should have given her a broken left wrist or something, because I just didn’t buy that she could climb a ladder with a broken ankle.

Still, such minor complaints. This passionate and soulful book has it all: well-developed, fascinating characters; a solid and intriguing plot; great pacing; and gorgeous language. And as an extra treat, the last paragraph is as wonderful as the first.

I need to go check out King’s earlier works, and I now have to check out Margaret Mead’s work too. Yi yi yi, my already bloated to-read shelf groweth!
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,859 followers
February 16, 2015
I picture Lily King in her office, surrounded by a library’s worth of research materials. Drafts of Euphoria are stacked in descending towers along one wall, each draft a stair-step lower. I picture a writer chipping away at her words, like a sculptor to marble, until the true work reveals itself; the words coming to life in the reader’s imagination the way hard, cold stone warms like flesh under the hand.

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

A sense of menace pervades the narrative, beginning with the first paragraphs. It is the early 1930s, and American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen are fleeing the aggressive Mumbanyo tribe in a canoe when something is tossed at them. It lands near the canoe’s stern but Nell can't see what it is: Fen has broken her glasses. He remarks that it’s, “Another dead baby.” Nell can’t tell if he’s joking. When her infertility and miscarriages are later revealed, Fen's caustic remark becomes unforgivably cruel.

Yes, their marriage is a hot mess. Both are gifted anthropologists, but it is Nell, the author of a best-selling, controversial ethnography, “The Children of Kirakira,” who garners acclaim and grant money. Fen can hardly be bothered to carry a notebook and pen. Their months with the Mumbanyo have nearly destroyed the couple physically and emotionally, and they are returning to Australia to regroup and then embark upon a study of the Aborigines.

Enter Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been in New Guinea for years, studying the Kiona tribe. Bankson, escaping the shadow of an overbearing mother and the ghosts of two dead brothers, is on the brink of suicide. He invites the Stones to return to New Guinea, but they are aware of the competitive nature of anthropologists and fear that there’s no more room in the territory for them to set up camp. Bankson, loneliness seeping from his pores, introduces the Stones to the Tam tribe and the three become a triangle of intellect and intrigue.

The narrative is told in third person from Nell’s perspective, in first person from Bateson’s, and through Nell’s journal. The alternating voices, the shifts in time, and the retrospection serve to enhance the tension. Bankson leaves clues that something terrible has happened, but the author reveals only just enough to compel the reader onto the next page, and the next. This is a novel that will make you late for work, or keep you reading far past your bedtime.

The anthropologists devise an ingenious grid to classify all of human culture (riffed from a classification theory that Margaret Mead herself devised), but they are utterly incapable of understanding their own hearts. Bankson falls hard for Nell the moment he sees her and she is torn between her partnership with Fen, her ambition, and the shelter she finds in Bankson’s adoration. But there is nothing maudlin about their interactions; King maintains the sexual and emotional tension like a piano wire plucked and humming.

So too are the encounters between the Stones and Bankson and the tribes under their study: Tam and Kiona, respectively. These are the genius moments of Euphoria, as these three Westerners assume the role of cultural scientists with the arrogance born of ignorance. Theirs is a new science and they are eager to experience the euphoria of discovery and understanding. When a breakthrough is made, they feel they could “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” Here too there is intrigue, as Nell is allowed deeper into the female-dominated society of the Tam while Fen, with all his petty jealousy and arrogance, secretly plots to obtain his own piece of fame.

Lily King had so much rich material to work with. She could have offered us a doorstop of a read, a cultural and emotional epic. Instead, she chiseled away until she reached the heart of darkness. Euphoria is all the more profound and moving for her restraint. An excellent novel.

Profile Image for Adina .
890 reviews3,543 followers
August 18, 2022
I have so many books that I still need to review that it gives me anxiety. As such, I will write a paragraph for this one. I need to speed things up.

This novel felt special to me. It is 1933 and a married couple working as anthropologists meets another man working in the same field while studying the South Pacific tribes in New Guinea. They become a sort of love/friendship triangle but the story is much more complex. It is about self-discovery along with researching other civilisation, about self-destruction, violence, loneliness, love. When I was a child, I had long period when I wanted to become an anthropologist so the exotic setting was right up my alley.

I loved the audiobook narrated by Simon Vance, and Xe Sands. I already knew Vance’s voice from The Promise that also got 5*.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,191 followers
September 27, 2020
I loved so much about this novel - the writing, the atmosphere, the tension of the love triangle, a glimpse of what it might have been like for renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead as she studied native tribes in New Guinea. Even though this novel is inspired by a short time in Mead’s life, it is not a factual account or a biographical novel. If you go in with that expectation, you might be disappointed because the story doesn’t fully follow the details of Margaret Mead’s life. I took it on its own as a beautiful and skillfully written novel, which happens to be inspired by a famous woman. It’s an intimate look at three anthropologists - Nell Stone, Schuyler Fenwick, and Andrew Bankson. The novel is about what ensues when Nell and Fen who are researching tribes along the Sepik River in New Guinea in the 1930’s, connect with Andrew.

The story is mostly told by Bankson in a first person narrative where I got a sense of his personal losses, his frame of mind, and his feelings for Nell. Nell’s journal entries are interspersed and they reflect her deep commitment to the people she is studying, especially the women and children and a sense of how she feels about the people in her life . We only learn about Fen, my least favorite character, through these narratives. While I went into this thinking it would be Nell’s story, I ended up thinking that it was as much Andrew’s story. He was my favorite character and I have to admit I fell a little in love with him.

Even though, King relates in a note that most of the tribes depicted here are fictional, it is clear from her list of resources that her research was diligent. It’s a short read, but full of emotion - passion, love, jealousy. The tension is thick between these scientists and the natives they were studying, between Fen and Nell as husband and wife and as scientists, between Andrew and Fen and between Andrew and Nell. Emotionally charged, intellectually fascinating shedding some light for me on an area that I know very little about. But it also reflected on our humanity and our flaws . I didn’t want it to end, but that last line - oh my heart ! This is my second Lily King novel and now I want to read the others. It took me long enough to get to this and I’m so glad I finally did. A special thanks to Candi for this book .
Profile Image for emma.
1,869 reviews54.5k followers
June 8, 2023
Sometimes, I unexpectedly love a book.

Honestly, that's the rule for most of the times I love a book. I wander through life with my expectations low and cynicism running rampant. Sometimes - maybe 14 out of every 305 times, for example - I am pleasantly surprised.

And in those instances I forget how to act.

This is such an insane occurrence that I am often forced to pick up the next book I can possibly find by that author, and, craving the one in 21.7857 high that is a five star, read it immediately.

And inevitably two star it.

It happened twice in October alone, with this book and during the post-I'm Thinking of Ending Things fog I read Foe during.

Even wilder, it happened earlier this year when (after A Little Life destroyed me) I read Hanya Yanagihara's only other published book, which shares a synopsis, setting, conceit, cast of characters, and rating from me with this one.

Basically what you need to know about me and this book is that while I should have expected not to like it, I instead was uniquely devastated by the transformation from a coincidence into a pattern.

My first Lily King book, Writers and Lovers, has a lot of stuff I like. A lit fic vibe, a mentally ill protagonist in her 20s, a series of doomed romances, a Boston setting, a book deal. I was set up to like it, essentially without any input from anything Lily King-specific.

This is not a book I would like. I do not like romances in which one or both of the participants are otherwise romantically engaged. I do not like tropical settings, or the bugs, illnesses, and bodily descriptions that tend to populate them. I do not like anthropology or its ethics or reading about either. And I do not like male protagonists much, especially when they are written by and in love with women.

We all get carried away.

This wasn't bad when you look past my dislike of all of that, but even the best preparation of a food you find disgusting is still inherently that food.

Bottom line: I am so grumpy, both over this and by nature. I'm going to go drink hot chocolate until I feel different.


like the people in the trees, by hanya yanagihara, this is a book about a two-man-one-woman group of early anthropologists studying and living among a pacific tribe.

also like the people in the trees, it's my second book by this author, when i five starred the first and felt totally blah about the second.

life's funny that way.

review to come / 2 stars

tbr review

obsessed with reading books people read in suburban book clubs like 8 years ago
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,220 followers
July 13, 2016
To begin with I had the feeling I was really going to enjoy this. There wasn’t going to be any wizardry or groundbreaking technique to this novel. Rather it seemed it would be a riveting story told by an accomplished writer with a passion for her subject and a very easy and poised prose style. Quickly there’s a sense that the real tribes under scrutiny here are men and women. But I felt King could have been a little more subtle and certainly more probing with this anthropological irony. Then it began to seem a very light and breezy read but perhaps a little too light and breezy. I found myself hoping for more depth as the novel progressed, for the sifting down into deeper layers of meaning. Or something more than a love triangle in an exotic location at the advent of a world war which does make you think King wasn't unaware of the colossal commercial success of The English Patient and Out of Africa - except her writing unfortunately isn't in the same class as Ondaatje or Blixen. In the first five chapters there could be the suspicion that anthropology is just going to be used as an exotic backdrop for little more than another done-to-death love triangle.
I think there’s an element of everyone in the novel becoming a representative of his/her tribe – whether the tribe is nationality or sex. King is asking questions about the credibility of anthropology as a science since it is all about communication between the observer and the observed - and this is what every good novelist does, starts off asking crucial questions about the themes the novel is to investigate.
I’m liking the subtle use King’s making of the love triangle. It isn’t some cheap amphetamine she’s used to increase the bloodflow of the plot. In fact I think we have little emotion invested in the will-they-won’t-they? question. Rather she’s showing us how infatuation/love/kinship heighten our observational prowess. It’s Bankson’s infatuation that makes his observations of Nell so informed and extends the reach of his sensibility which, in turn, allows him to enter into the spirit of the Kiona, an accomplishment denied to him until his imagination was fired up by his meeting with Nell and Fen. This very much in contrast to the patriarchal Victorian world’s hard-boiled scientific methods of gathering and ordering data.
More than half way through now and I'm still waiting for the euphoria moment when everything falls into place. At times I wonder if my disappointment isn't perhaps due to a lazy reading of the book on my part because I'm not really getting it while others are clearly getting a much richer reading experience. The research rarely feels rooted into the soil of the novel. For me the Tam still don't have a vivid identity. I'm not seeing how they spend a typical day. King is more interested in the sensational than the everyday and this, for me, is caricaturing the culture a bit. And i often feel she doesn't quite have command of her material. This might be due to the obvious problems posed by fictionalising real people. I still have the feeling she wanted to write the English Patient but was beaten to it.
I think King's constantly heightening interest only to then almost immediately deflate it by dillydallying. I'm not loving the construction of this book. There is much that's interesting but I just don't feel she's making it all run together very well.

I’ve got a theory that if you read this novel in big daily instalments you’ll enjoy it more than if you read say ten pages at every sitting. The former way of reading is perhaps to experience the novel as the sum of its parts; the latter, to experience it as more than the sum of its parts because, in a sense, you’re breezing over some of those parts in your enthusiasm to read on. I’ve decided to use chapter 21 to highlight how King consistently allows the tension line of this novel to go slack. By this late stage the novel should be reaching some kind of crescendo. Instead the opening page is nothing but idle chitchat. Wholly gratuitous gossip about Stalin and WH Auden. What either of these two are doing in this novel is a mystery. Then Fen has yet another snide dig at Nell. Haven’t we already got the point by now? Then there’s the very long winded reading of Helen’s book, though not before a brief discussion about tea which allows Fen to get in another snide remark. All the stuff about Helen’s book feels forced – researched material shoehorned in without much flair or subtlety. Bankson says, “The most intoxicating drug could not have had a stronger effect on me.” But this is a classic example of telling, not showing. The entire section about Helen’s book is prosaic telling, not showing. Once again all dramatic tension has fizzled out of the novel. King restores it at the end of the chapter when she shows how energising is the intellectual collaboration between the three – but, for me, so many chapters in the novel follow this somewhat sloppy pattern.

I would argue many of the themes people have seen and praised in this novel are simply inherent in the material. Isn’t it anthropology itself that invites many of the questions people have praised King for raising? The real question is, did King develop these themes? For me this was essentially an intelligent romantic novel. What most interested King was clearly the love triangle. She was at her best when dealing with the tensions uniting and separating Nell, Fen and Bankson. The best chapters for me were when the various tribes were little more than wallpaper. (It doesn’t surprise me that real anthropologists found her depictions of the Sepik river tribes somewhat patchy and vague.) The real story perhaps was the egotistic male’s jealousy of his female counterpart’s success. The tyranny of patriarchy demanding a supporting role from the female. King offset this with the matriarchal culture of the Tam. This part worked well for me. As did the almost supernatural prophetic mirroring of Bankson and Xambun. Were there deep layers of cultural meaning emerging from the Nell-Fen-Bankson triangle? I’d say nothing we learned isn’t part of accepted knowledge about male/female relations of that time or so-called civilised society’s attitude towards indigenous cultures.

My take on the research was that it was too apparent King kneaded it to suit her needs. I deliberately kept myself ignorant of all background info on the novel while reading it but I sensed almost immediately that all the tribes were opportunistically invented. Clearly King sought to thematically relate the tribes to her story but for me her method was too simplistic and involved distorting realities. The pioneeringly feminist and too good to be true Tam and the sinister patriarchal Mambanyo mirrored the characters of Bankson and Fen in the simplistic superficiality of contrast. Maybe that was okay, maybe it wasn’t. Probably a question of taste. I think the key to how much enjoyment you got out of this novel was the level of emotional investment you had in the love triangle (not the case with, for example, the English patient, where there’s a lot more going on). If you were able to enjoy the anthropology as simply exotic background colour the novel as a whole was probably a more rewarding experience. For me the Kirkus prize had my expectations too high. I’d say Euphoria is good high end commercial fiction and had I read it with that perspective I’d have enjoyed it more. I also have the suspicion it’ll be one of those novels that could be better as a film because much of what is told in the novel will be shown in a film.
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 3 books782 followers
November 13, 2022
Heartbreaking, fascinating, beautiful and spellbinding, all in equal measure. Perhaps not quite on a par with the author's incredible 'Writers and Lovers', but certainly one of the finest books I've read in some months.
Profile Image for David Putnam.
Author 18 books1,596 followers
October 21, 2020
DNF. I absolutely loved Writers and Lovers so maybe my expectations were too high. This book was nothing like Writers and Lovers, a totally different voice which is the "Everything," in writing for me. This read more like a travel log, or a journal and lacked the same emotion.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews605 followers
August 4, 2015
"I can feel the relationships, the likes & dislikes in the room in a way I could never speak.
You don't realize how language actually interferes with communication until you
don't have it, how it gets in the way like and overdominant sense".

"Nell was laughing with him and I wasn't sure what had just happened: who had asked
the questions, whose questions were asked, how he got that story out for him when
he did not want to tell it, when he had kept it a secret all his life. Bolunta.
They 'want' to tell the stories, she had said once, they just don't I always know how.
I had years of school, and years in the field, but my real education, this method of
persistence I would draw on for the rest of my career, happened right then with Nell".

...I loved the:
...setting....lush-exotic dazzling....rivers, rain forests, and landscapes, in New Guinea
...The anthropological research
...The characters
...The story
...The sex
...The tensions elevating
...The intimacy

.....A quiet book ... yet explosion! ..... ( very sad ending, which physically hurt in my belly).

Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,715 followers
June 17, 2015
Loosely based on the experiences of real-life anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, Euphoria is a captivating work of historical fiction. Set in the 1930’s Territory of New Guinea, the setting is exotic and the various cultures in the region are intriguing. I became immediately interested in learning about the tribes living along the Sepik River right along with the fictionalized characters Nell Stone and her husband Fen, and the depressed and isolated Andrew Bankson. These three are drawn to one another; and their interactions, both professionally and romantically, are well developed and quite irresistible. I admired Nell and could feel such empathy for her at times as she struggled not just to understand the people of New Guinea, but humanity itself. “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 find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.” The novel is told from Bankson’s point of view, which I found very appealing as his character was more approachable to me and lent an air of nostalgia to the story. Snippets of Nell Stone’s diary entries are also interspersed throughout and add additional perspective to the narrative.

Jealousy festers and eventually erupts, violence ensues, and the safety of the threesome becomes threatened and their work halted. I can’t help but think that while we try to penetrate the mysteries of those persons and customs unknown to us, we don’t always understand those that are closest to us either. “I've always been able to see the savageness beneath the veneer of society. It's not so very far beneath the surface, no matter where you go.” This as well as many other penetrating insights provided for a very thought-provoking read. Beautiful prose, tension, haunting atmosphere, and poignant conclusion, make this book stand out in my mind and I believe it will do so for some time to come. My only complaint is that the ending seemed to arrive a bit too quickly. I highly recommend this book. 4.5 stars which I have rounded up to 5 stars.
Profile Image for Jaidee.
605 reviews1,204 followers
August 15, 2023
2 "a promising and wondrous beginning leading in the end to profound DYSPEPSIA and DYSPHORIA..."stars !!

So the prose is absolutely magnificent ...easily 4.5 star quality. So the fieldwork of three cultural anthropologists in the 1930's is rich and ripe with detail ....easily 5 star quality. The vivid cinematography and rich rendering of Papua New Guinea is absolutely 5 star quality. Holy Moses does our author have talent and artistry in spades and diamonds and clubs...but its those damn hearts that get you ....fuck what a disaster !!

Superimposed on all this wonder you have the most inane, cloying and annoying love triange ever written about. Adolescent, saccharine and insipid ! Infuse this with a modern feminist sensibility, quasi bisexuality and three main characters where I just didn't buy into their personalities, ways of being in the world or motivations and you have ....

Happy Days teenage angst amongst the natives with Harlequin romance vibes...UGH times 1000!

One of the biggest missed opportunities for a masterpiece ever...and I mean EVER !!

Profile Image for Jen CAN.
505 reviews1,486 followers
July 27, 2015
Euphoria is my new favourite read of 2015. The title itself captivated me until the story grabbed and pulled at me and I, too, felt intense pleasure and well being. It’s New Guinea circa 1932. Three anthropologists - Nell and Fen, a couple, and Andrew who travels solo, meet up at a Christmas party after having travelled to the inner most remote areas of the region seeking out tribes and attempting to decipher cultures. This friendship creates an opportunity to shed the loneliness and isolation that comes from spending months away from western civilization, however the costs are tragic. King creates a complex story of emotional intimacy between the characters as well as a fascinating depiction of self discovery and self destruction. If I could give it a higher rating, I would. 5★
Profile Image for Debbie "DJ".
352 reviews403 followers
June 28, 2015
Holy moly, I couldn't put down the last third of this incredible book. Review to follow...when I catch my breath!

Okay, breath caught. Pretty obvious, I loved this book! Yes, it's the story of early anthrolopology, loosely based on Margaret Mead. When I started reading, I thought it was good, but also a little slow. However, once I got into the second half I literally couldn't put it down! The story revolves around three main characters, Nell, her husband Fen, and fellow anthropologist Bankson. What blew me away was how I felt like I was seeing with my own eyes, native cultures never before seen, never touched by anything or anyone outside of their own society. Here's a quote from early on. " Anthropology at the time was in transition, moving away from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model." Huh, almost a century later, and is this not still our rigid belief?

Just imagine, everything about the way we live has been shaped and designed by the society we live in. Viewing these primitive cultures showed me just how precarious a society is, how different it could be. Some early societies were run by women, some shared lovers, some were fierce and territorial. So many possibilities!

Also, I really loved how Lilly King created a narrative between her characters. How their lives become deeply involved with one another. How Nell did not want to be possessed in love, and yet married a man who does just that. One that breaks her down in every way.

Okay, and just a shout out to yesterday's news of legalized gay marriage, the story has a subtile reference to how she was in love with a woman before she married, one who she continued to write to often throughout the book.

Wonderful read, highly recommended!

Profile Image for Libby.
594 reviews156 followers
March 10, 2020
Lily King creates very real to life characters in Schuyler Fenwick, Nell Stone, and Andrew Bankson, three anthropologists studying the native tribes of New Guinea in the 1930’s. Learning that the novel was inspired by Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, three anthropologists who spent time on the Sepik River in New Guinea in 1933 added fuel to the fire of my enjoyment. I find the study of humans untouched by technology and with very little acquaintance with the accouterments of civilization fascinating. Back in those far off days of high school, I remember toying with the idea of becoming an anthropologist; I was equally entranced with paleontology.

Fen and Nell are a married couple who have just left the aggressive Mumbanyo tribe, cutting a planned year-long stay down to five months. Nell didn’t like them, and as Fen admits, ‘it was her grant money that was paying the bill.’ Nell has become fairly well known due to a book she wrote which has caused Fen some jealous distress. They plan on going to Australia to study the aborigines if Bankson, who is studying the Kiona tribe is still in his spot on the river. Bankson is still there, but entreats them to stay, offering to help them find a suitable tribe.

The story is told from Nell’s and Bankson’s point of view, Bankson’s viewpoint is delivered in first person and Nell’s in third person. Bankson is desperately lonely when he meets up with Fen and Nell at a Christmas party. He assures the anthropology team that the Sepik river does not belong to him, nor do the tribes and asks them to stay. They agree and Bankson assists them in finding the Tam. As Bankson treats Nell’s lesions and jungle wounds with iodine and boracic ointment, I get a sense of the romantic tension that King will strum like so many violin strings, creating a harmonic rhythm that seems inevitable, but elicits suspense nonetheless. In a grid that the three of them develop to describe the characteristics of the tribes they’re studying, they decide that Fen is most like the competitive and aggressive Mumbanyo tribe. Nell comments that she and Bankson are like the more responsive and compassionate Southern tribes. Just as Nell’s comparison of the two men paints Bankson in a more favorable light, just so has King added another element to her cocktail of tension and suspense.

What I enjoyed most is how King manages to build her characters in such an organic way. Nothing about them seems forced or contrived. She draws comparisons and contrasts between the three characters and their way of practicing anthropology. The setting is alive with the sounds, smells, and sights of a life lived in the jungle. I do not like that something critical takes place off stage, so to speak, as the author builds her climactic ending. Perhaps that is because King surprises me. It is an ending I did not expect. Can I be satisfied with the author’s ending and not like it at the same time? Yes, I can.
Profile Image for PorshaJo.
467 reviews672 followers
November 22, 2020
Rating 4.25

I remember when this came out, the cover drew me in, it's gorgeous. But I don't know why I didn't read it. This year, after seeing so many great reviews on Writers and Lovers, I picked it up. I wanted more from this author. Then, she was doing a talk in my town (moved to virtual) and I wanted to attend, so it was the perfect time to pick this one up. It was a buddy read with Dana and we both jumped in with the audio.

Euphoria tell the story about Nell Stone, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson. They are studying native tribes in 1933 New Guinea. It's the loose story/bit imagining of Margaret Mead, who studied tribes and their customs. The three live primitive lives, studying the tribes, living in the jungle. And then, they all come together and a love triangle begins. Nell really dives into her work, writing books about her research, and has become famous. She seems to have much more in common with Bankson, who is doing is research on another tribe up river. But Bankson just tried to commit suicide and has his own demons. Then we have Fen, who is quite jealous of his wife and her fame, and seems to be willing to do anything to achieve greater success. But what happens after a fateful decision by Fen, begins a chain of events that affects all of their lives

I really enjoyed this one and can't get it out of my head. While I was reading it I kept thinking back to Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, where the main character also lived among a tribe, but for very different reasons. My only complaint about this one is it's too short. I wanted to hear more, I wanted to know more about the tribes, more details of their research. This one was told from Bankson's point of view with Nell's diary entries inter-weaved. Honestly, I would read a book from each characters point of view. Even though Fen was not the most likeable character, I would like to dive more into why he is the way he is. Overall, a good read that we both enjoyed. Happy we read this as a buddy read. I did enjoy this one more than Writers and Lovers. And after that, I'll say I'm a dope and totally forgot about the author event until a few mins before the start, I totally missed it. So I can't wait to read the next from this author, and I'll not think twice about it.
Profile Image for Nilguen.
230 reviews77 followers
February 25, 2023
Experience first-hand Margaret Maed, a leading anthropologist, and her discoveries of what makes us humans in different cultures narrated by the perceptive author Lily King!

It is undisputed that Maed´s work was colossal and regularly challenged by her environment, but ultimately contributed to extending human perception.
Whilst her coworkers were confined by silos, Maed managed not to be distracted from what she was witnessing and connecting her findings.

Lily King emphasizes what was required to be listened to as a female anthropologist in early times. Despite the difficulties, Maed kept on advancing in her professional practice. Among others, she was a leading figure in "The Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization" after the WWII, a post conflict initiative that focused on bringing young leaders together (not mentioned in the book).

My brain synapses kept on building bridges across cultures when reading this book, whilst I was in euphoria with Maed´s courage whether by her professional discoveries or by her private choices.

IG: @nilguen_reads
Profile Image for Idarah.
464 reviews51 followers
May 26, 2015
"She told me that 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.'"

I love books about anthropology, and in this historical fiction read, King takes the reader deep into the river villages of New Guinea in the 1930s. Andrew Bankston, an English anthropologist, has been studying a friendly river tribe for several years by himself. Overcome with loneliness and deep sadness, he can't help but feel like fate has directed him to Nell and Fen, a married couple of anthropologists on their way back to Australia after a year in the field. Convinced they are his salvation, he persuades them to stay on in New Guinea, and finds them another tribe to study close by, the Tam people, so that they can stay in contact.

What follows is a confusing triangle of friendship, intimacy and violence. King's descriptions of tribal life, rituals, and history were intriguing and incredible. I can see why this type of work appealed to many people long ago when so many corners of the earth were still undiscovered, and why many today choose to venture out into unknown frontiers. When the "euphoria" hits and you connect with your subject, what an amazing feeling that must be. Great read! Perfect for the summer.
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,588 followers
May 26, 2015
I don’t know much about cultural anthropology, and only vaguely recognize the name Margaret Mead (apparently her work is considered “old-fashioned” and “quaint” in current academic circles), but Lily King’s compact and brilliant novel has now made me curious about both.

The book was inspired by the few months in 1933 in which Mead, an American, her second husband Reo Fortune, an Australian, and Gregory Bateson (an Englishman, who would become her third husband) spent together on the Sepik River in New Guinea.

When we first meet Nell (based on Mead) and Fen (Fortune), they’re exhausted, having just toiled for a year and a half unsuccessfully studying other native tribes, including five months with the violent Mumbanyos, who kill their first-borns and have fathers copulate with their daughters at seven or eight. There are huge cracks in the couple’s relationship, some concerning their failure to conceive, some from Nell’s recent success with a bestseller on anthropology, which has made Fen frustrated and jealous.

Then, at a Christmas party run by colonials – a fine opportunity for King to provide some sharp, efficient portraits of that society – the couple run into fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson (modeled on Bateson). Lonely, despairing and suicidal, Bankson agrees to show the two some tribes up the Sepik River. Little does he know that studying the Tam, a group run by powerful women, will irrevocably alter all of their lives.

King’s decision to have Bankson narrate the book is a stroke of genius. He’s an outsider figure with a tragic history: both of his older brothers have died (one in the war, one to suicide), and he’s always been a disappointment to his family, who don’t consider his field of research to be actual science. So he’s hungry for a substitute family, not to mention companionship and professional stimulus that will spark his own research.

Because he has limited access to the tribe Nell and Fen are studying, what he witnesses is limited, and we have to do the work of connecting episodes and judge whether we can trust his observations.

Also included are excerpts from Nell’s journals, so we get glimpses into her work and her complex feelings for the two men, as well as her memories of another colleague and former lover, Helen.

There are so many joys in this book: watching three vastly different approaches to the then nascent field of anthropology (the fact that they're from different cultures is obviously significant); seeing a love triangle emerge; and, of course, meeting the various people they’re studying, which include a tribe leader who was recently exploited by colonials by working in a mine.

There are some fascinating themes about love, competition, companionship, war and – for lack of a better expression – why people do the things they do.

Underlying everything is this question: Who's more civilized, the people studying so-called savages – and often resorting to deception to do it – or the "savages" themselves?

There’s also a lovely repeated image, drawn I think from the poet Amy Lowell, about two kinds of love: the intoxicating flush that comes with wine and the comforting sustenance provided by bread.

King’s deeply satisfying book offers up both wine and bread.

The ending feels a little abrupt, but, as the saying goes, it's better to leave people wanting more, not less. And I'll definitely be looking for more of King's work.
Profile Image for ❀Julie.
97 reviews82 followers
March 5, 2016
Judge a book by its cover? Absolutely with Euphoria! I was completely transported to the setting in New Guinea and three days after finishing I’m still thinking about it. The book is loosely based on the lives of anthropologists, Margaret Mead and her first and second husbands, and left me wanting to know more about each of them. I say loosely based because the author added her own twist to the story that tugged at my heartstrings. But regardless of who they were, I loved these fascinating characters that were created in this book. The character, Bankson, stole my heart from the outset. The story is told mostly from his perspective, but also through letters from Nell that added a layer of intimacy. And then there was Fen, Nell’s husband, whose less than favorable traits made me like him just for the tension he created. Although the aspects involving the study of anthropology and the tribal cultures they studied were highly intriguing, one need not be a fan of historical fiction to appreciate this amazing story. It was the relationship that developed between the three anthropologists and the qualities they contributed to their work that propelled the story. You know with “love triangle” in the blurb things are bound to get juicy, but the romance is tastefully done and even the most moralistic of readers will be immersed in their passions…and something about it was so timeless I kept forgetting it was the 1930s. This is an absolute favorite and a story I won’t forget. It’s perfectly paced and beautifully written by an author with class. 5 colorful stars!!!
Profile Image for Caroline .
429 reviews593 followers
February 2, 2020

I hate books that waste their potential. The premise of Euphoria is excellent and could've been unlike anything else, but every single one of its plot points is underdeveloped. It paints an incomplete portrait of tribes in New Guinea and of an anthropologist’s fieldwork. The “passionate love triangle” promised in the summary is quite unpassionate and more of a side plot. This love triangle also doesn’t threaten the three main characters’ lives, careers, and bonds, as the summary states. Here’s a perfect example of a book that’s won a handful of prizes but isn’t necessarily deserving of all the accolades.

A book about anthropologists in the 1930s ought to transport and educate, but Euphoria does neither very well. Too often I was told what’s happening in the tribes, not placed in the center of any action.

One prime example is when a character recklessly sets off on a life-endangering mission and returns with tragic news. I wasn’t brought along on that mission. I simply saw this character leave in a boat, then return.

Herein lies one of Euphoria’s biggest flaws: It lacks drama. There’s no suspense and little tension. It’s a passively told story in which the three anthropologists, Nell (loosely based on Margaret Mead), her husband Fen, and their friend Bankson reported to me. The tribal scenes that are depicted lack the kind of color and energy that would make this story powerful on a deeply emotional level. There’s a remove, the feeling of impassively observing, whether the scene shows Nell sitting cross-legged in her house interacting with the natives or a woman struggling to give birth on a beach.

Then there's a love triangle. I'm not automatically opposed to love triangles like some readers are. Generally, I'm opposed to love triangles that don't make sense for the story. With Euphoria, although I'm not sure the love triangle was necessary, it doesn't feel shoehorned in the way triangles in other stories are. However, its portrayal is just not very good. Tension is weak, only simmering under the surface, never reaching a boiling point of intensity.

This isn't helped by the fact that this triangle involves three characters King failed to make authentically human. Probably because this story was inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, King devoted most of her attention to Nell. Nell is therefore fleshed out pretty well; however, King gave surprisingly short shrift to Nell’s husband Fen. He’s a cardboard character who’s never not an uncaring husband and often an uninterested anthropologist who increasingly annoys Nell. When he gets jealous, viciousness rises to the surface in a flash.

Nell’s lover, Bankson, by comparison, is sensitive, gentle, lonely, and as passionate about anthropology as Nell is. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him when he expresses how lonely he often feels and to not adore how he treats Nell.

It seems time and again, when a writer crafts a love triangle involving married people, portrayals of the cheated-on spouse and the lover end up black-and-white. To make an extramarital affair palatable, it’s essential that the cheated-on spouse be a one-dimensional jerk and the lover close to perfect.

Euphoria does have great writing going for it, which is where some of the accolades no doubt come from. King’s writing style is outstanding, spare but not simplistic, sophisticated but not at all flowery. King also did a good job making me feel Bankson's loneliness and hopelessness:
Nell and Fen had chased away my thoughts of suicide. But what had they left me with? Fierce desires, a great tide of feeling of which I could make little sense, an ache that seemed to have no name but want. I want. Intransitive. No object. It was the opposite of wanting to die. But it was scarcely more bearable.
Pacing, too, is even, albeit slow because of the lack of drama and an underdeveloped love story that gathers speed too late in the story. The ending is, fortunately, satisfying--emotional and memorable.

As an anthropological story, Euphoria fails to offer insight into anthropological fieldwork and tribal life. A better choice would be Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa. Those seeking a romance in an exotic setting also should opt for something else. Euphoria is worth reading only to see what good writing looks like. That's it.
Profile Image for Dolors.
540 reviews2,281 followers
July 29, 2021
***stay alert, spoilers below***

I can’t shake the feeling that I have failed this novel.
Being familiar with King’s electric writing style, I was truly excited to finally get to read her most recognized work which I had saved like a squirrel hoards acorns for the upcoming winter. Imagine my huge disappointment when I couldn’t, for the life of me, be fully drawn into the story.

Based on the life of Margaret Mead, King conducts a three narrative voice canon with expert hand. Set in the 30s in the exotic setting of New Guinea, and deliberately slow paced at the beginning, King introduces the three voices that will define the ultimate tone of the novel. Let it be said, quite a heartbreaking, painful tone.
The anthropologists Nell and her husband Fen, opposed poles but a research team on the life and culture of the tribes in the area, bump unexpectedly into a colleague in the field, Andrew Bankston. That meeting will represent the starting point of a battle of egos that will accentuate the unbalanced power dynamics between the married couple, triggering a turbulent love triangle that will turn upside down the lives of the three protagonists.

Alternating narrators and using a fragmented style with flashforwards to the future, King introduces controversial topics such as varied views on colonialism, the effects that anthropological studies will have on the impending WWII, gender violence and the role of women in professions driven mainly by men.

Rereading what I have written above, I can’t help but wonder why such a story, with ingredients this juicy, didn’t move me as I expected it would.
My guess, not willing to discourage potentials readers, is my current state of mind.
I have lost patience when dysfunctional relationships become the center of a love story, particularly when it’s easy to predict how badly they will end for everyone. If I am in need of one of those, I turn to the classics. Michael Ondaatje. Karen Blixen. A.S. Byatt.
What else to say…I am afraid I might be turning into a demanding, surly middle-aged reader!
Oh, and let me say as well that at least for me, chapter 28 was the best piece of writing of the whole book. The open reference to the Bard’s “The Tempest” was brilliant, the perfect corollary to put an elegant and meaningful end to the tragic story; and only for that brief episode, I would read the whole book again, be it bread or wine.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,538 followers
August 22, 2015
I love the interplay between the personal and scientific outlooks on human nature in this fictional rendering of the life of Margaret Mead and her husband during their fieldwork living with a New Guinea tribe in the 30s. This is not historical fiction in the sense of trying to recreate a possibly real version of actual events, but a use of a historical figures and situations as a launching pad for an imagined story. How does the interplay between the subjective and objective work out for anthropologists embedded for long periods within an alien culture? And when it comes to trying to uncover universal truths about gender roles in societies, how does that effort intersect with the struggle the scientists themselves are having with their own personal solution and the challenges of a love triangle?

If that all sounds academic on the one hand or a salacious invasion and undermining of the integrity of Mead’s work, never fear. Above all this is a story of the regenerative power of love. The lead character, named Nell, is rendered as a humane woman and dedicated scientist, full of energy, vision, and compassion. She is fascinated how the tribe (fictionally named the “Tam”) seems to provide a feminist model where women play a dominant role in fishing and in trade relations and allows them to choose when and who to marry, while the men are more involved in crafts and ceremonies. We get this little window into her motivation to understand a relatively peaceful people with elements of a gender role reversal:

As a little girl in bed at night, when other girls were wishing for ponies or roller skates, she wished for a band of gypsies to climb up to her window and take her away with them to teach her their language and their customs. …Always in her mind there had been the belief that somewhere on earth there was a better way to live, and that she would find it.

Her husband, Fen (Reo Fortune as the model), comes off as selfish, petulant, and jealous of her fame from her book on the liberated adolescence of a Melanesian tribe (aka Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa”). But he’s got verve and humor, and often puts her ideas to useful criticism, such as pointing out how the gender roles observed might be a temporary during recovery from being victims of warfare with a neighboring tribe. While Nell works on the tribe’s economics, food, social structure, and child rearing, he’s supposed to be studying their religion, rituals, warfare, and geneology. The trouble is, he’s not pulling his weight:

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 not ontological. It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public.
Is interest lay in experiencing, in doing. Thinking was derivative. Dull. The opposite of living.

Into Nell's unstable situation another man arrives, the Brit Andrew Bateman (aka Gregory Bateson, Mead's future third husband). In his frustration over his lack of progress in understanding a warrior tribe and depression from loneliness, he has helped place Nell and Fen with the relatively nearby Tam so he can have some colleagues to visit. His affinity for Nell is pretty electric, and the mutual ferment of their ideas are exciting to experience in King’s narrative. I won’t spoil any fun over how this progresses or drama in Fen’s reactions. However, I will share a couple of passages on how their friendship shaped their perspectives on their work. For example, Bateman is eager to get at the significance of ritual transvestism and homosexuality in his tribe’s celebration of war victories, she advises him to ask them directly what that means to them:

“The meaning is inside them. You just have to pull it out.”
…Observe, observe, observe, I’d always been instructed. Nothing about sharing your findings or eliciting analysis from the subjects themselves. “Wouldn’t this approach create a self-consciousness in the subject that would then alter the results?”
“I think observing without sharing the observations creates an atmosphere of extreme artificiality. They don’t understand why you’re there. If you are open with them, everybody becomes more relaxed and honest.”

In another journal entry she has just awakened from a dream about “Helen”, a fictional version of Mead’s mentor Ruth Benedict, who she had a brief affair with near the time Fen was entering her life:

I want too much. I always have.
And all the while I am aware of a larger despair, as of Helen & I are vessels for the despair of all women and many men too. Who are we and where are we going? Why are we, with all our “progress,” so limited in understanding & sympathy & the ability to give each other real freedom? Why with our emphasis on the individual are we so blinded by the urge to conform? …
The world—and really I mean the West—has no interest in change or self-improvement and my role in it seems to me on a dark day like today is merely to document these oddball cultures in the nick of time, just before Western mining and agriculture annihilates them. And then I fear that this awareness of their impending doom alters my observations, laces all of it with a morose nostalgia.
This mood is glacial, gathers up all the debris as it rolls through: my marriage, my work, the fate of the world, Helen, the ache for a child, even Bankson, a man I knew for 4 days and may easily never see again. All these pulls on me that cancel one another out like an algebraic equation I can’t solve.

Despite the inevitable strife among the threesome, there is a wonderful point in the story when they work together on a euphoric epipany of ideas as they try to map various cultures according to dominant sets of characterics; i.e. possessive, aggressive; caring yielding; pragmatic, managerial; creative, nonconformist. Should they map genders separately? Could the scheme work for individual personality types? I loved that section.

All this gave me a satisfying illusion of experiencing Mead as a heroic human being and not the scientist who got discredited for biased reporting on the Samoans. I used Wiki to catch up on the status of attacks on her Edenic account of the Samoans and was surprised there was substantial defense of her conclusions. The work is referred to here as shocking the Americans with its portrayal of their liberal approach to child rearing (“They were astounded by Kirakira children paddling in boats alone at age three, still sucking on their mothers’ breasts at age five, and, yes, disappearing into the forest or down onto the beach with a lover of either sex at age thirteen.”) Personally, I was more interested in the representation of Bateson, whose later application of cybernetic systems theory to social behavior fascinated me when I was a student and researcher in the biology of aggression in animals. And his book of essays and metadialogues, “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”, was popular with us hippie types in the 70s and adapted for groovy theories of mental health and illness at the time by the likes of John Lily and R.D. Laing.

This reading makes me hunger more for anthropological fiction, including “Mating” by Norman Rush and “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme. I also want to pursue more about early work on New Guinea tribes before they were changed irreversibly by contact with the West, including Bateson’s “Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View” (1958) and Peter Matthiessen’s “Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age” (1962).

Bateson, Mead, and Fortune in 1933
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews691 followers
October 4, 2020
The flavor of a culture, the balance of nature.  Three anthropologists observing various tribes in New Guinea in the 1930's, based loosely on Margaret Mead and two others.  Bargaining with long dead ancestors for the health of loved ones.  Making a song out of all the names of the dead you have known.  The customs, rituals, and beliefs were fascinating.  If you ever have the misfortune to run out of good old Elmer's glue, it might be handy to know that fig sap will work nicely in a pinch.   
Having recently read another of this author's novels, I reconsidered my original decision not to read this one.  Although the ratings were high, I had shied away due to the word "romance" coming up too often.  With nary a romantic bone in my body, I grudgingly admit my eyes welled up just a tiny bit with the final paragraph of this story.  But no tears actually fell, so my "books that made me weep" count remains at two.  

'You don't realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don't have it, how it gets in the way like an over-dominant sense.'
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,977 reviews1,988 followers
July 24, 2017
Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: 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 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 nearby, the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control.

My Review: Five stars were well within reach, in fact were more or less guaranteed, but there was a problem. Well, isn't there always. But this is my happy place:
I asked her if she believed you could ever truly understand another culture. I told her the longer I stayed, the more asinine the attempt seemed, and that what I’d become more interested in is how we believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our own personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civilisation, right and wrong.

Yum. And many more like it:
It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion – you’ve only been there eight weeks – and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

But the beautiful writing is only part of the story. The plot follows, not overly closely to be sure, the New Guinea experiences of Margaret Mead and her team. But as we draw closer and closer to the end, the setting changes to Australia and becomes pot-boilery, overheated, and unconvincing to me.

It is, however, one of the last passages set in the 1930s that made me shout at the page: Unworthy of a writer of the caliber Lily King is.

But the ride...the pages flying and the telephone ignored and the dinner gulped...that can't be discounted or devalued by a misstep, no matter how infuriating I found it.
Profile Image for Dianne.
567 reviews934 followers
August 22, 2018
I loved this quiet, fascinating book about a love triangle between 3 anthropologists in New Guinea in the 1930’s. Lily King poignantly captures a moment in history where tribes and their cultures are still undiscovered, letters and journals are still handwritten and time flows thick as molasses. A deep breath inhaled and held, just before the world changes forever.

Lovely writing and a perfect, haunting ending.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book563 followers
July 4, 2023
This book is part historical fiction, part romance and part anthropological science; it is 100% remarkable. I thought of The English Patient while I was reading it, not only because it explores a complicated three-person relationship but also because I had that same tense sense of foreboding in my chest while reading it.

The story is loosely based on an episode in Margaret Mead’s life, when she was conducting research with Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. This is, however, not Margaret Mead’s story, this is Nell Stone’s. The details of the studies our three fictional anthropologists conduct and details of life in the tribes of New Guinea are pulled from Mead’s life, however, and this explains why everything about the story rings so true and possible. It is fiction well-researched.

Lily King has captured her three main characters perfectly. Nell Stone, Schuyler Fenwick, and Andrew Bankson became three dimensional very quickly–I could hear their laughter and see their facial expressions, I could sense the pressure in the room toward the end.

They are in another world, and King takes us there wholly and makes us recognize the difference this environment makes for them.

We passed through a long swath of fireflies, thousands of them flashing all around us, and it felt like soaring through stars.

As Nell, Fen and Bankson compare the culture of their subjects to their own, there is much that defines what it is to be human and much that makes them wonder at how superior civilization really is.

’Funny how irony is never tragic to them, only comic.’
‘Because death is not tragic to them, not the way it is to us,’ I said.
‘They mourn.’
‘They feel sorrow, great sorrow. But it isn’t tragic.’
‘No, it isn’t. They know their ancestors have a plan for them. There’s no sense that it was wrong. Tragedy is based on this sense that there’s been a terrible mistake, isn’t it?’

For me, what set Nell apart was her ability to see the humanity in everyone in the village, and that contrasted sharply with Fen's inability to see beyond himself.

Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this novel inspired me to ask if it is truly a good thing when such diverse cultures meet. It often seems everyone loses by the contact, and seldom seems to result in any deeper appreciation or understanding of one another that benefits the studied culture.

I am patting myself on the back for reading this now. It was not in my plan, but it has been on my “short-list” for quite a while and I have promised myself to read at least one book a month from that list going forward. I am delighted I chose this one!
Profile Image for Bonnie Brody.
1,214 reviews187 followers
July 2, 2014
I had trouble getting through this book. I found the story rather boring and the characters only partially developed. The historic significance of cultural anthropology in New Guinea during the 1930's was very interesting as was the protagonist's character being based on Margaret Mead. This created the groundwork for an interesting historical fiction.

Ms. King appears to have difficulty differentiating between an ethnographic field study as opposed to a treatise on a particular tribe. Ethnographers are silent observers who enter a domain and try to learn about it from the inside out. This is what the two main characters hoped to attain with their study of the Tam. However, what they achieved was closer to a treatise.

Nel Stone and her husband, Fen, have been married for about three years when they meet another anthropologist in New Guinea - Bankson. Bankson is recuperating from a failed suicide attempt and does his best to help out Nell and Fen, who are determined to leave New Guinea unless they can come up with the right type of tribe to study. Bankson is studying the Kiona and he sets Fen and Nell up with with the Tam.

This threesome has a difficult dynamic. It is obvious from the outset that Bankson is smitten with Nell despite her having malaria, a broken ankle and sores all over her body. Fen does not show the least bit of jealousy and it is interesting to find out what occurs between Nel and Bankson.

I enjoyed the parts about the indigenous people and their lifestyle. The rules and taboos fascinated me and Ms. King successfully communicates this aspect of the novel. However, each of the protagonists lacked a deep sense of inner self and seemed derivatove
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,487 reviews843 followers
June 25, 2022
“I can feel the relationships, the likes & dislikes in the room in a way I never could if I could speak. You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense. You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can’t understand the words.” [Nell Stone, journal, January 1933 ]

This is the story of a triangle between three anthropologists: American Nell Stone, her Australian husband Fen (Schuyler Fenwick), and Englishman Andrew Bankson. They are all working with various tribes and communities in New Guinea.

The narration and points of view move between them.

Nell has become world-famous for her popular earlier research and book, and Fen makes no secret of being bitter about being in her shadow.

They are on their way back down the Sepik River to catch a motorboat and then leave for Australia. On the boat they meet a pair of couples dressed in their finery, because it’s Christmas Eve. The women are gossiping about who else on the boat they find attractive.

“In her mind Nell was writing:
—ornamentation of neck, wrists, fingers —paint on face only —emphasis on lips (dark red) and eyes (black) —hips emphasized by cinching of waist —conversation competitive —the valued thing is the man, not having one, necessarily, but having the ability to attract one

She couldn’t stop herself.”

She’s a mess, with cuts and lesions and sores and maybe ringworm. Fen, on the other hand, is making the most of holding forth to his audience as a rumpled, important, scientific adventurer.

When they later meet Andrew Bankson (only ever referred to as Bankson), he notices Nell’s condition and offers to patch her up with his medicine kit, which annoys Fen. These people have met before, but Bankson doesn’t realise that they consider him competition. He’s appalled . . . and lonely.

‘Do not under any circumstances leave the Sepik because of me. I do not own it, nor do I want to. There are eighty anthropologists for every bloody Navajo, yet they give me a seven-hundred-mile river. No one dares come near. They think it’s “mine.” I don’t want it!’ I was aware of the whinge in my voice. I didn’t care. I’d get on my knees if I had to. ‘Please stay. I will find you a tribe tomorrow—there are hundreds of them—far far away from me if you like.’

They did like, and he does take them in his motorboat up to a new community, which is where most of the story takes place in the early 1930s. Fen’s jealousy over Nell’s fame is offset by Bankson’s admiration of (and strong attraction to) Nell, creating obvious tension in the camp.

The author says she’s based this loosely on the life and work of celebrated American anthropologist Margaret Mead, who wrote the wildly controversial Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation, published in 1928. It was famous for describing the sexual lives of teen-aged girls.

Why do anthropologists do it? Bankson asks Nell what her favourite part is.

“She narrowed her grey eyes. ‘It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.’

‘Bloody hell.’
I laughed.

‘You don’t get that?’

‘Christ, no. A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.’

Euphoria – that wonderful feeling that you’re on the right track and all’s right with the world.

How these three lived in huts on poles and collaborated and competed is described well as is their exhaustion caring for each other during bouts of malaria. They all have different styles of research and spend hours excitedly debating and collaborating and arguing theories about human development, which I really enjoyed.

Bankson’s notes are dry, academic sentences and paragraphs. Nell’s are poetic, descriptive, abbreviated and colourful. Fen just wings it, working alongside the local men and maybe writing something down later.

The author has done a mighty job herself, showing us the communities and individuals who are under scrutiny, their behaviour, rituals, habits, traditions. She says she has invented the places and the people, but it’s obvious they are based in reality.

The story moves along like an adventure tale of danger and romance, with the added knowledge that gifts of matches and cigarettes, among other things, are changing the families they’ve come to love. The three researchers spend hours debating and collaborating and arguing theories about human development, which I really enjoyed, but you don’t have to like that sort of thing to enjoy the book.

For me, I loved it all. Nell/Mead, the men, the locals, the history, the debates, the setting (sticky, lots of mozzies).
Profile Image for Maureen.
347 reviews82 followers
April 15, 2021
This novel was inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson The threesome did research of tribes in New Guinea in 1933.
Nell and Fen are a married couple and meet Andrew Bankson at Christmas Party. Bankson agrees to accompany them to the Sepik River where there are known tribes so that they can do their research.
Bankson is in a very depressed state and has already tried to commit suicide.
Nell is a successful author, her husband Fen is very jealous of her accomplishments.
Bankson is the main narrator, but Nell’s story is intertwined.
The setting is the exotic jungles of New Guinea. The descriptions of the tribes and customs were intriguing.
This is a compelling story loosely based on Margaret Mead, with a twist to the story. I loved the characters of Nell and Bankson.
Bankson is drawn to Nell as they study the rituals and everyday life of these primitive people. You can feel the sexual tension between the two.
Tension rises as Fenn does the unthinkable and puts Nell and Fen in danger.
The prose and writing are beautiful. It draws you into the story.
I only wished that there were more details of the tribes.
I thought the beginning of the book was hard to follow until you got into the story. The ending to me was abrupt, but a good read.
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