Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Personality depends on context, just like culture

Book reviews. Remember when I wrote those things? I'm currently 8 books back but I'm working my way towards fixing that. So let's jump into Euphoria by Lily King.

This was the second book Just The Right Book sent my way and, I gotta be honest, when I read the summary I was...not super excited. I hadn't heard anything about the book and the line "a captivating story of three young, gifted anthropologists of the 1930s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and ultimately their lives" did not seem like my cup of tea. But I want to read out of my comfort zone, so I was going to trust the selectors over at JTRB and give this a go.

The story is "inspired by the events in the life of...Margaret Mead" but if you don't know much about Mead *raises hand, looks ashamed* don't worry, prior knowledge not necessary to enjoy. The main characters are Nell Stone, her husband Schuyler Fenwick (Fen), and their friend Andrew Banks, who harbors a maaaaajor crush on Nell.

The book starts out with violence, setting a tone for the rest of the book that, even when nothing particularly dangerous is happening, there's a tense fog lurking in the background. Nell and Fen are fleeing a tribe they had been studying. They're throw a dead baby at the couple. Fen has broken Nell's glasses. They're both dirty and covered lesions. They're both suffering from malaria. Things aren't going great. Their chapters are either told in the third person or Nell's journal entries.

Banks starts his chapter telling us that three days prior, he tried to kill himself. He filled his pockets with stones and walked into a river, but was pulled out by some members of a tribe he'd be been studying. Bank's chapters are in the first person, and he had most of the pages, so I felt closer to this character. He talks about his family, his past, he's loneliness, his worries, his love Nell.

He wants Nell and Fen nearby and works to find them a tribe to study near where he is, cos I guess that's a thing you can just do?

Fen is a jackass. I know, this is over simplifying the character, and a nice thing about King is her characters are complex and nuanced. He's not a one-note villain. He's not even really a villain. But he is a jackass. He's jealous of Nell. Her books are more popular, selling and making her a household name, while his work is going nowhere. He has a strange obsession with the violent characteristics of the tribes they study. There are moments when Fen is less terrible, usually when the three of them are working out anthropological theories. Nothing brings people together like coming up with a quadrant grid to map every human culture.

The "euphoria" of the title comes from Nell and the moment that she makes a breakthrough with the people she's studying. Her work is far less academic than what is expected. She focuses on the human aspect, which seems logical for someone studying other humans. Of course this goes against everything Fen has written and he's not happy with this. Banks's work was the traditional-style research though he's as much enamored with Nell's unique process as he is with her.

I can't say I'm going to run out and look for more books set in the 1930s featuring anthropologist love triangles, but this exceeded my expectations. King's writing did it and the fact that at no point did it feel like she was resting on cliches (something I worried about whenever "love triangle" is mentioned). Outside of my comfort zone and a success.

Gif rating:

Title quote from page 209

King, Lily. Euphoria. Grove Press, 2014.