Euphoria is a fictional account inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, but I felt like I was the anthropologist as I read it, so thoroughly was I analyzing the behavior of the three main characters. Nell Stone and her husband Fen have a relationship complicated by his jealousy and competitiveness. When they meet fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson in New Guinea where they are all studying various primitive tribes, the three form a strange bond that, though exciting as the title suggests, feels doomed from the start.
Most of the book is narrated by Bankson, who is plagued by loneliness in the field. He often wonders if his research has any purpose at all, even as he writes to his mother with news of his progress. Meeting Nell changes everything for him. He is fascinated by her methods as she works with the tribespeople, and he is transfixed by her as a woman. We can tell from Nell's diary entries, interspersed throughout, that she can't help her interest in him either. It's hard to root against them when Fen continually proves to be brutal and self-obsessed.
Even with all the tension swirling around them, the three scientists have undeniable chemistry when it comes to their work. I was fascinated to witness the interplay between them, the different methods each uses, the varied ways they interact with the people they are studying. None of them, however, could have guessed how their breakthrough idea would someday come to be used. This was the most interesting part of the novel for me, the way the effects, both personal and professional, of their short time together on the Sepik River would ripple outward for years and years to come. It becomes horribly clear by the end of the novel that it is impossible to observe another culture without impacting it, and without being changed by it.