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Euphoria by Lily King

This is beautifully written fiction loosely based on the period Margaret Mead’s life where she and her then-husband, when they meet up with the man who will became Mead’s next husband (in real life) in New Guinea. Intrigued? I knew little about Mead before I read this book, but the premise of this love triangle was enough to get the attention of my romance brain.

I read Euphoria with my long-time book group, and our two-hour discussion didn’t come close to covering all the idea this book provoked for me. This story intertwines the pursuit of love, personal stories of professional ambitions, self-interests and the sacrifices made for others. The personal stories of the three characters are all tied together in a stinging critique on the field of anthropology and the less admirable reasons people pursue this path. Did you follow that? Lots to think about. And that’s the summary.

Line by line, the books is filled with gems. Here’s one from when the third man in the triangle meets Nell (Mead’s character) and her husband: “My heart whapped in my throat and all I could think was how to keep them, how to keep them. I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter.” Vivid, right?

As my primary interest in this blog is to look at what makes different romance books tick, I’m going to focus on the romance, and, in particular, the end. Don’t worry; I’m not going to spoil the book and tell you what happens. I’m simply going to say this: The end of Euphoria is nothing like the real ending the historical period and does not even hint at the how Mead’s life continued. And after choosing so much to draw from Mead’s life, exact or amalgamation, I’m wondering why she diverged so far from history in the end.

In real life, she goes on to leave Ren, her second husband and marry Gregory Bateson, the third person in the book’s triangle, and the stay together for 15 years and have a daughter together. Sounds like material for an ending that at least hints at happiness, right?

But King wholeheartedly rejects any hint of a happy ending. Not even a Bel Canto-like “seen a lot of terrible things but find solace in each other” type of ending. I’ve read some interviews with King on this book, and no one even asks her about this divergence. What’s going on here? While real-life Mead leaves her then-husband for Bateson, she eventually (15 years later) leaves Bateson for a long-time friend/lover. Was this real-life ending so unsatisfying that King avoided it all together?

Or is this just one many examples of my current working theory: Literary fiction HATES happy endings. Can you think of some examples of literary fiction that gives an unequivocal, unironic happy ending? Even the happier endings tend to be portrayed more like a light in the midst of darkness, not simply light.

I’m curious about why this is. Does happiness feel somehow less profound than tragedy?

So here’s my reading recommendation: Read Euphoria. Then, if you don’t already know it, read a little about real-life Mead. If you have another theory on the ending, let me know!

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