Euphoria is novel clearly inspired by the life and work of the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Like Mead, King’s protagonist Nell Stone is dedicated to learning about the tribes of New Guinea and bringing that knowledge to the West. She is joined on her journey by her new husband and fellow anthropologist Schuyler “Fen” Fenwick, though the two sometimes seem to work at cross-purposes. Their story is mostly narrated by a third anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, who introduces the couple to a tribe called the Tam, seven hours away from the Kiona tribe he has lived with for two years.
Because of the gender dynamics among the Tam, Nell is forced to confine herself to studying Tam society through interviews with women and children. The men of the tribe will not let her into their homes or converse with her privately. She is thus forced to rely on her husband’s observations of the Tam men and grows increasingly frustrated at his sloppy approach to the task. Meanwhile Bankson, who had been lonely and suicidal before Nell’s arrival, finds himself overwhelmed by his feelings for her. He is fascinated by her dedication to anthropology and in awe of her abilities.
This is all fairly standard love triangle stuff, but the unique setting heightens the drama and King’s elegant writing elevates the proceedings. King also departs from the real story of Margaret Mead’s life and love to craft a devastating conclusion, no less impactful for being foreshadowed from the very beginning.
I’m no anthropologist and I have no familiarity with Margaret Mead’s work. I have read some criticisms of the book based on the grounds that it is bad anthropology. All the tribes depicted in Euphoria are fictional, though the Tam are based partly on a tribe Mead really did study. I don’t particularly care about the historical or scientific accuracy of a work of fiction, so these concerns, however valid, did not diminish my enjoyment of Euphoria a bit. King is a gifted writer and this is a work of profound imagination.