Gah, this book. It was probably 4.5 stars for me going into the ending. There were so many things to appreciate about it, and just a few things that bothered me*. On a stylistic level, I thought King’s writing was strong – emotional and evocative. Thematically and politically, King’s portrayal of the start of modern anthropological ethnography was nuanced and balanced – Nell Stone (aka Margaret Mead) and her compatriots were among the first to think about bias and objectivity and global white supremacy, and they were all part of changing anthropology into what we see today. I thought King’s portrayal of the native peoples’ Stone lived with and studied in New Guinea was equally nuanced. She shows that what we know of this people has come through the lens of white anthropologists, who themselves knew that they weren’t getting or understanding everything. She wrote the indigenous characters as people, which ideally wouldn’t be a positive thing to note. (Ideally it would just be a thing that everybody does, but instead here I am, thankful that she treated human beings like human beings.) King engages with the complicated harm that white people brought to the rest of the world, especially in the return of an indigenous man who had gone off to work in a mine and came back changed.
That’s the good stuff out of the way. My niggling negatives pre-ending included a discomfort with how unclear it is what is Margaret Mead & compatriots and what is fictionalized. King changes enough, including making Stone more passive than Mead and her husband both emotionally and physically abusive when afaik there isn’t evidence of that, that I would have appreciated more notes in the back, separating truth from fiction. I also felt uncomfortable with King’s POV choices – why does Bankson get this close, personal 1st person perspective, while Stone gets either a limited-3rd or diary entries? Ultimately, King’s POVs show her focus: this is really Bankson’s story, about how Stone saved him and his career, and it seems insulting to me, to take one of the most famous & fascinating women in history and write a book about how she changed one man’s life. Judging harshly, I’m going to say that King turned Mead into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with a little less manic pixie, but plenty of “amazing, crazy, unique girl comes into a man’s life and inspire/save him.” Ughughgughgughg.
And worse than that, worse than that, and here’s where we get to my deep anger at the ending(view spoiler)
I will say that it is rare for me to downgrade a book more than half a star based on its ending (I only had one last year – Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar), so for me to go down 2 full stars is a big deal. I rounded up to 3 stars out of respect for the nuance and care King showed during most of the book.
*Thank you, Mia, for helping me to, rather than fall into to a rage cycle, think through my post-reading anger and to acknowledge all of the things I appreciated about the book.
(Cross-posted from Goodreads. See my other reviews and/or friend me here.)