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Book Review: The Foremost Good Fortune

Posted by gck Sunday, April 22, 2012

foremostgoodfortuneThe Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley

Genre: Memoir
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: light summer reading, people curious about China from a foreigner’s perspective
Received ARC copy through a GoodReads giveaway.

Back-cover summary:
Susan Conley, her husband, and their two young sons say good-bye to their friends, family, and house in Maine for a two-year stint in a high-rise apartment in Beijing, prepared to embrace the inevitable onslaught of new experiences that such a move entails. But Susan can’t predict just how much their lives will change.

While her husband is consumed with his job, Susan works on finishing her novel and confronting the challenges of day-to-day life in an utterly foreign country: determining the proper way to buy apples at a Chinese megamarket; bribing her little boys to ride the school bus; fielding invitations to mysterious “sweater parties” and tracking down the faux-purse empire of the infamous Bag Lady; and getting stuck in an elevator, unable to call for help in Mandarin.

Despite the distractions, there are many occasions for joy.  From road trips to the Great Wall and bartering for a “starter Buddha” at the raucous flea market to lighting fireworks in the streets for the Chinese New Year and feasting on the world’s best dumplings in back-alley restaurants, they gradually turn their unfamiliar environs into a true home.

Then Susan learns she has cancer.  After undergoing treatment in Boston, she returns to Beijing, again as a foreigner—but this time, it’s her own body in which she feels a stranger.  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 celebration of family and a candid exploration of mortality and belonging.

My review:
This book focuses on two major events in Susan Conley’s life: moving to China and dealing with cancer. They’re supposed to mirror one another: first Susan is a stranger in a new country, and then she becomes a stranger to her own body. It sounds cleverly put together with the promise of some sort of deep, inspired conclusion. Unfortunately, it never quite works. The connection never fully materialized for me.

The parts dealing with Conley’s cancer are my least favorite in the book. I think perhaps it is difficult to articulate this experience because it was so internal. Unlike being a foreigner a country, where there are constant anecdotes about culture shocks and language difficulties to illustrate the strangeness to the reader, the cancer is just cancer. So instead, we get stories about how her children react to the cancer. Mildly interesting, but for me, not relatable. I read this book at the same time as I read The Replacement Wife, another book about a woman dealing with cancer. Emotionally, this book fell so flat in comparison.

However, I did enjoy all of Conley’s stories about China, and I would have happily read more. Having returned from a trip to China not long before starting this book, I happily found myself transported back through the writing. Some might find her narration arrogant or irritating, but it didn’t strike me as such. I felt like she wrote honestly and had more tolerance and openness than most Americans would have if they suddenly moved to China. Of course, there are the obligatory complains about smog, toilets, and the language barrier, but this doesn’t prevent her from exploring and enjoying Beijing.

We get additional insight into the culture through characters she describes, such as Mao Ayi (her housekeeper/nanny), Rose (her English teacher), and Lao Wu (her driver). We learn that there are many “Mao Ayi”s in China because people would prove their patriotism with their choice of children’s names. We get a glimpse of the pressures put on young people in China through Rose’s struggle over her boyfriend and career choices.

If the whole book had focused on Conley’s experiences in China (and perhaps more about her husband’s previous adventures in rural areas of the country), it would have been a stronger, more interesting memoir.

1 Responses to Book Review: The Foremost Good Fortune

  1. I've always wanted to visit China (and will one day) so I've added it to my wishlist. It's a shame the book had too many focuses, maybe it would have been better just as a travel memoir.


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