This post is a big switch–instead of writing about unexpected visual art, I am writing about unexpectedly good literature. When I moved to Little Rock, I joined two book clubs, a conventional one that meets monthly and and one that never meets. (How can there be a book club without meetings? Simple–its called a pass-along book club. The members choose books and every two weeks, you have a new book to read.) This month was special–two great books, so good that I had to write about them. Neither book interested me much when I looked at the covers and titles. But the books were there and I decided to give both of them a try.
At first glance, the books have nothing in common. One is set in New Guinea in 1931, the second in New York City in 1985. The main character of both books is based on a real woman, Nell Stone is based on Margaret Mead in Euphoria and Lillian Boxfish on Margaret Fishback in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. Mead and Fishback were contemporaries, beginning their careers in the 1920’s. Both became leaders in their fields, Mead in anthropology, Fishback in advertising copywriting. They published several books, Mead, anthropology and Fishback, poetry. These women were not typical of their time and worked in fields dominated by men. Fishback was never paid as much as her male counterparts, Mead’s studies of adolescent women in Samoa were controversial and her research methods were questioned. Both were married and had children, both were more successful than their husbands.
Euphoria by Lily King, is the first book I read. I opened the book and was hooked by the second page. Beginning on the Sepik River in New Guinea in 1931, the book tells the story of Nell Stone and her Australian anthropologist husband, Schulyer Fenwick, who are leaving New Guinea and traveling to Australia to study the Aborigines. Nell had recently written a book that was well received and that allowed her to get grants to fund both her research and her husband’s. Just as they were about to leave for Australia, they met British anthropologist, Andy Bankson, an acquaintance and competitor of Fenwick, who convinces them to stay in New Guinea and volunteers to help them to find a tribe to study. The search was successful and Nell and Fen settle into the village of the Tam people. Nell was happiest when she is working with and studying native people and she quickly integrated into the Tam women’s society, but Fen is not as successful with the men. Nell’s successes with the Tam and her fame as an anthropologist and writer continued to bother him. When Bankson returns to the Tam village to visit Nell and Fen, Nell’s euphoria begins to fade. The story takes a turn, and the results are unexpected.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney, set in New York City is the second book I read. Lillian’s story begins on New Year’s Eve, 1985, when she is 86 years old. She is retired, divorced and living in Manhattan with her cat Phoebe. She has dinner plans for the evening and she decides to walk the few blocks to the restaurant. She takes a detour and stops in at a neighborhood bar for a cocktail. This is the first stop on her walk that visits the New York landmarks that played parts in her life and helps her to tell her life story. And what a story it is–each landmark introduces another section of her life, and leads to another landmark. The events on the walk bring out the happiness and tragedies in her life and explain how she found the resilience and courage that made her such a success. As she walks, she acknowledges the passage of time and realizes that she can accept whatever the future holds for her.