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Then Susan learns she has cancer. After treatment in Boston, she returns to Beijing, again as a foreigner--this time to her own body. Set against the eternally fascinating backdrop of modern China and full of insight into the trickiest questions of motherhood--How do you talk to children about death? When is it okay to lie?--this wry and poignant memoir is a candid look at mortality and belonging as well as a celebration of family.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-10-25
- Reviewer: Staff
"China sat in the rooms of our house like a question," begins Conley in this luminous memoir of moving her family from Portland, Maine, to Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics. Conley's husband had accepted a dream job in Beijing, and they had decided to say "yes to all the unknowns that will now rain down on us" including common difficulties faced by many families moving to a new city: a new school for her two young sons, finding new friends, and adjusting to a new apartment all compounded by the intensity of learning a difficult new language and adapting to a new culture. Conley's writing is at once spare and strong, and her description of having to present an unflappable front to her children while being hit "with a rolling wave of homesickness" pulls the reader into her world like a close friend. As Conley starts to hit her stride in her adopted city, she discovers lumps in her breast and finds herself on a different kind of journey, which she describes as "an essential aloneness that cancer has woven into my days." She explains in this engaging memoir that after her treatment in the U.S. was over, she returned to Beijing, where she searched for the perfect Chinese talisman to "ward off the leftover cancer juju" and hoping to help her boys move past their own fears of their mother's mortality. (Feb.)
West meets East: A woman in transition
In 2008, Susan Conley embarked on the most adventurous, challenging and harrowing road trip of her life. When her husband Tony landed a job in Beijing and moved there ahead of his family, she and their two young sons packed up their belongings and their lives in Maine and journeyed to the East.
A woman in transition, Conley stepped off the plane into a land of transitions: the ancient beauty and power of the Great Wall, the manic preparations for the coming Olympic games, poverty and wealth sitting cheek-to-cheek on city streets. She describes her own misadventures, misgivings and mistakes with humor in The Foremost Good Fortune, her animated account of her daily life in her new home.
As she struggles to learn the language, to absorb the stark cultural differences between her old life and her new one, and to provide stability for her sons while her husband is consumed with his own job, Conley discovers some lumps on her breast that send her to the local hospital in Beijing. Because the medical staff seem indifferent to her fears, she returns to the U.S. for medical care and eventually undergoes a mastectomy in a Boston hospital. After a six-week period of convalescence at home in Maine, she returns to Beijing, to Tony and her sons.
On the first anniversary of her mastectomy, Conley gets stuck in the elevator in their high-rise apartment building, and all the anger, fear, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy that have been lurking just beneath the surface of her daily life are revealed in a phone call to her husband. When she emerges from the elevator, she decides that she should lose track of the date of her mastectomy.
In the end, she recognizes that “words are what get me up in the morning. . . . Because the stories of our lives live on. And I would like my story to be about hope. It will also have the word disease in it, but that won’t be the whole story.” Conley’s lovely memoir powerfully reminds us that we draw our strength from the many little wonders of our everyday lives.