by Lily King
My two favorite things about Euphoria: its great feminist heroine and its beautiful writing.
The story takes place in the Territory of New Guinea in 1933 and is a fictionalized re-imagining of the events–both personal and professional–that unfolded when Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands worked together studying the tribes along the Sepik River. As you might guess, a love triangle and academic wrangling ensued.
Nell Stone (the book’s Margaret Mead stand-in) is an accomplished anthropologist whose success overshadows her two male counterparts. But the reason she’s so successful isn’t because she’s interested in outdoing the men, it’s because of her genuine passion for her field and the fresh, relational (some might say female) perspective she brings to the work. As one of these contemporaries explains, “For so long I felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions.” This is what I think of as the Peggy Olson school of feminism: women characters interesting and strong enough to break barriers simply by being true to themselves and their interests.
But unlike dear Peggy, Nell Stone’s intellect is extremely attractive to her male counterparts. One says, “I loved the sound of our two typewriters; it felt like we were in a band, making a strange sort of music. It felt like I was a part of something, and that the work was important. She always made me feel that the work was important. And then her typewriter stopped and she was watching me. ‘Don’t stop’ I said. ‘Your typing makes my brain work better.’” Pretty hot – huh?
I’ve taken the liberty of disproportionately quoting from the book to demonstrate King’s beautiful, clean writing style. It’s a style in which every carefully chosen word evokes the story’s place and people. I find this kind of writing particularly relaxing to read, almost meditative. It’s how I feel when I read Marilynne Robinson.
Since beginning this blog, there’s been an underlying theme to most of my reading selections: the literary woman-in-a-strange-land genre. I could claim it’s something subconscious (my wanderings through Berkeley certainly constitute anthropological research into the customs of burnt-out baby boomers) but given my process for choosing what I read when, it’s safe to say that my recent reading list has been more arbitrary than one might assume.
That said, my next undertaking should be very, very different from the books I’ve written about up to this point. Coming up to bat is My Struggle, Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard. (That’s book one of six, by the way, though fortunately for all of us he’s still writing them) Knausgaard is an extremely intense Norwegian man whose six-part “autobiographical novel” is the current Literary Big Deal. I can be a little jaded by hoopla but, of course, I’m also intrigued. I’ve heard this book referred to as both “boring” and “Catcher in the Rye for 40 year olds.” I’m banking on the later. You’ll be the first to know.