Face in a Book Update: Mini-Reviews Edition

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Face in a Book is my weekly mini-review feature, where I review the books I've read this week!

Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic; On Sale June 3, 2014)
From New England Book Award winner Lily King comes a breathtaking novel about three young anthropologists of the ‘30’s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives.

English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field for several years, studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with colleagues, the controversial Nell Stone and her wry and mercurial Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just fled the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s poor health, are hungry for a new discovery. When Bankson finds them a new tribe nearby, the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control.

Set between two World Wars and inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is an enthralling story of passion, possession, exploration, and sacrifice from accomplished author Lily King.

When famous anthropologist Nell Stone and her husband Fen move down the river to study a tribe closer to Andrew Bankson, they interrupt his thoughts of suicide and loneliness. Finally, people to talk to! Turns out that this couple’s presence adds some complications to Andrew’s already complicated life. Drawn to Nell and Fen like a moth to the fire, an intellectual affair ignites among this threesome. Eventually it gets physical and emotional with Nell (who was inspired by Margaret Mead) – leading to accomplishment, tragedy, and violence.

In college, I briefly toyed with becoming an anthropology major. While it didn’t end up being my future career, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been an enduring passion. You don’t need an interest in anthropology to dive into Euphoria, though. Nell and Fen were studying the cruel Mumbanyo tribe in New Guinea, when Nell convinces her reluctant husband to study elsewhere. Fen, however, is after a flute that he believes will garner him fame and glory. When Andrew (fresh off a failed suicide attempt) meets them, he’s determined to keep this power couple close by – and installs them up the river with the Tam tribe. While Nell falls in love with the tribe, and begins her life’s work, her husband is focused on “procuring” – really he just plans on stealing – the Mumbanyo tribe’s totemic flute.

Between philosophical discussions of the field of anthropology itself, to a beautiful and doomed romance, this was a fantastic and gripping read.

When the World Was Young by Elizabeth Gaffney (Random House; On Sale August 5, 2014)
Wally Baker is no ordinary girl. Living in her grandparents’ Brooklyn Heights brownstone, she doesn’t like dresses, needlepoint, or manners. Her love of Wonder Woman comics and ants makes her feel like a misfit—especially in the shadow of her dazzling but unstable mother, Stella.

Acclaimed author Elizabeth Gaffney’s irresistible novel captures postwar Brooklyn through Wally’s eyes, opening on V-J day, as she grows up with the rest of America. Reeling from her own unexpected wartime tragedy and navigating an increasingly fraught landscape, Wally is forced to confront painful truths about the world—its sorrows, its prejudices, its conflicts, its limitations. But Wally also finds hope and strength in the unlikeliest places.

With an unforgettable cast of characters, including the increasingly distant and distracted Stella; Loretta, the family’s black maid and Wally’s second mother; Ham, Loretta’s son, who shares Wally’s enthusiasm for ants and exploration; Rudy, Wally’s father, a naval officer, away serving in the Pacific; and Mr. Niederman, the family’s boarder, who never seems to answer Wally’s questions—and who she suspects may have something to hide—Elizabeth Gaffney crafts an immersive, beautifully realized novel about the truths that divide and the love that keeps us together.

Those who know me well (or read the blog often) know about my love affair with A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. As I started reading, I immediately recognized similarities between the two young female protagonists - and also drew parallels to To Kill A Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Like Scout, Mick and Francie, Wally is a bit of a tomboy, and runs a bit wild around her native borough of Brooklyn. Incredibly intelligent, inquisitive, and friendly, she intuits things about her surroundings that most adults around her can’t seem to.

Wally grows up in a gorgeous old Brooklyn Heights brownstone with her mother, Stella, and her distant grandparents while her father is off serving as a naval officer in World War II. Her main partner in crime is Ham, the young African-American son of the family’s maid (and Wally’s second mother), Loretta. Together they explore a shared interest in insects - ants, in particular. This slightly strange interest crawls through the entire book - and makes it clear that Wally isn’t your average young socialite.

Born into a family of doctors, and dealt a senseless tragedy, Wally’s mother Stella finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage with a man oceans away. When her husband’s old college roommate, Mr. Niederman, boards with them while working on a top-secret military project, Stella rediscovers passion and heartbreak.

The relationships between Wally and her family - including her second one “downstairs,” pervades the novel and gives it real heart. You start rooting for Wally and her unexpected love interest (I can’t spoil it, but oh God, so adorable) - and the ending is just what I wanted, as well as what I needed.

This is like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn but with a deeper exploration of race in post-war Brooklyn - oh, and also there are lots of ants. Highly, highly recommend.