Two 2014-published books, which I didn’t get to read until now, are those below. It happens almost every year, this kind of desire in January to read one or two books from the previous year before I head further into the new books of the new year, because I know I won’t get to them in maybe, well, forever. These two novels are gripping in ways unique to each: Euphoria for its love story and exotic setting of New Guinea in between the World Wars; and the Young Adult novel We Were Liars for the unknown of what happened one summer night.
Euphoria tips its hat to anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune during their brief time together in 1933 on the Sepik River in New Guinea, as noted by Lily King in her Acknowledgments. Their true story inspired her to write this fictional story that draws from their lives but does not reflect them. King writes, “I have borrowed from the lives and experiences of these three people, but have told a different story.” And what a great story it is — beautifully written with soulful needs, desires and hopes palpably rendered in the characters, as well as a fascinating window into anthropological study of native cultures (those, too, fictional in Euphoria).
Here’s a plot summary.
Famous American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen unexpectedly run into English anthropologist Andrew Bankson at a Christmas Eve party in the Village of Angoram, New Guinea. The Stones, on their way to Victoria to study the Aborigines, are fleeing a discouraging and frightening time with the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo tribe. Desperately lonely and isolated, Bankson urges them to stay and find a new tribe on the Sepik River where he’s studying the Kionas. He succeeds, and as the three work together in the upcoming weeks, Bankson falls in love with Nell.
Her passionate work behavior and the off-hand way she carries herself, a person of the mind and not of her own well-being, comes across as endearing. Nell squints to see, having lost her glasses, and Bankson gives her spectacles that once belonged to his deceased brother. Nell is brilliant and driven and yet vulnerable — she’s feverish and limping in the beginning. Bankson yearns to take care of her, while Nell’s husband Fen pushes her to get going. He’s constantly fierce with her, jealous of her success, having published a popular book in the United States. Nell recovers her strength and flourishes with the new native tribe on the Sepik River, while Fen neglects their research. The relationship among the three, their work and the surprising conclusion tell a memorable story.
E. Lockhart’s Young Adult novel (ages 12 and up) is told from the viewpoint of teen-aged Cadence Sinclair Eastman. She describes summers spent on Beechwood, a private island off the coast of Massachusetts owned by her Sinclair family. Lockhart provides a map of the island and the locations of the clan’s four houses and staff buildings, as well as a family tree. (I referred to them often.) The Sinclairs are self-interested, stoic, moneyed Democrats. They are athletic and beautiful. Cadence tells us, “We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong.” The patriarch Grandad and his three divorced daughters show forth with perfect appearances of control, privilege and power, yet below that perfection rumbles the reality of greed, insecurity and false love. We Were Liars makes use of the story of King Lear with narrative interludes about a king who had three beautiful daughters and who “as he grew older…began to wonder which should inherit the kingdom.”
An accident happens to Cadence on the island during the summer she is 15 years old. It causes her unbearable migraines and memory loss. Whatever happened also diminishes her closeness to her cousins and fellow liars, Johnny and Mirren, as well as to the non-Sinclair liar Gat Patel, who is the nephew of her Aunt Carrie’s boyfriend and the boy Cadence falls madly in love with. Summer 16, Cadence is taken to Europe. Summer 17, her first return to the island after the accident, she tries to find out what happened summer 15, but everyone is close-lipped.
Much of the story’s allure is the Sinclair’s East Coast, old money mystique and stiff-upper-lip attitude. The story’s power, however, is the uncertainty Lockhart maintains until the mystery is solved. It took me completely by surprise. The ending is horrific in one sense although, being written for young adults, tempered so as to be GP rated. Cadence leaves one to wonder why she did what she did, and how she’ll ever go forward into her life. That, too, makes for powerful reading, which even adults will find intriguing.