In the 1930s, in the heyday of anthropologists studying rapidly vanishing tribes, controversial American Nell Stone and her Australian husband, Fen, come out of the New Guinean rain forest. Nell, sick and exhausted, had insisted on leaving the previous subject of their study because the violence of the tribe kept her from doing any useful work. Mercurial Fen, on the other hand, liked them, and is jealous of the success his wife’s popularized work is having in the outside world. There is also a hint that the unborn child Nell lost during this stint was not a natural miscarriage.
A third anthropologist, the Englishman Andrew Bankson, joins them in what passes for civilization on Christmas Eve. After two years alone with “his” own tribe, and haunted by the deaths of his brothers as a result of the Great War, he was on the verge of suicide. The euphoria of their meeting ignites an intellectual and eventually romantic triangle that threatens careers and eventually lives. It is paralleled by the euphoria Nell feels at a certain point in her interaction with any new people, the point when suddenly she understands them and sees the logic and beauty of their vanishing way of life.
Euphoria is obviously and closely based on the real intellectual and romantic triangle of Margaret Mead, her first husband Reo Fortune, and her second husband Richard Bateson. Anyone who has read Mead’s autobiography will see that instantly but rejoice in the beautiful writing that makes the events in Mead’s groundbreaking but more scholarly works leap to emotional life. Just don’t expect the same ending, however. A wonderful read.