Faced with a choice between wine or bread, which would it be? Wine: intoxicating, sensual, an unnecessary indulgence. Bread: nourishing, sustaining, a part of life’s daily menu. That juxtaposition, based on the poem “Decade” by Amy Lowell, defines the way protagonist Nell sees her options in the lyrical, thoughtful novel called Euphoria. She is captivated by the wine—the euphoria—but she can’t ignore the bread. The novel describes an unlikely love triangle between three anthropologists living among tribes in New Guinea in the 1930s. Drawing from details of anthropologist Margaret Mead’s life, Euphoria explores what happens when a woman loves two different men, but really loves her work most of all. Nell’s goal as an anthropologist goes deeper than studying another people: “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.” The aspirations and motives of the three colleagues aren’t always clear to one another or to themselves; gender impacts the way each one works in the world, along with love, family history, and a desire for power. And the more they examine these little-known cultures, the more they are forced to examine themselves. After all, Nell realizes, “Perhaps all science is merely self-investigation.”
Up for Discussion:
Margaret Mead, Western perspectives of the Third World, post-colonialism, what makes us human, love and love triangles, motivations behind careers and work, gender restrictions and stereotypes
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
The link between Euphoria and Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel about Western imperialism seems almost too obvious to mention, but only almost. Heart of Darkness can’t help but influence a reading of Euphoria, and pretty much any other contemporary novel about Westerners exploring far-flung parts of the world (Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Patchett’s State of Wonder, Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, and more).