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Book Review

A journey of isolation, both physical and cultural

By Rebecca Steinitz
February 16, 2011

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‘The Foremost Good Fortune,’’ Susan Conley’s memoir of the two years she spent with her family in Beijing, abounds with metaphors, symbols, and analogies. Arriving in China by herself, Conley “can’t decide if this will be the lasting metaphor for how I experience this country.’’ Soon she wonders if “maybe in China I’ll finally learn to give up some control and let the river take me.’’

When she develops breast cancer several months into her stay, the metaphors proliferate. “Cancer tends to live in a wordless place,’’ she writes, as she feels herself “bobbing in a lake where only people with cancer swim.’’ Isolation is an ongoing motif: “I feel like I’m on a distant sister planet to the planet other people in the waiting room live on’’ and “sometimes having cancer is like being stuck inside an elevator.’’

By now, we’ve seen countless memoirs of motherhood, travel, and cancer, but Conley’s may be the first to wrap all three into a single literary package. Unfortunately, the combination offers little in the way of new insight. Just because you’re the mother doesn’t mean you know what to do. Travel forces you to relinquish control. Cancer is lonely. Cancer is like China, illness like exile: an experience of alienation from oneself as well as from that is familiar. If we have not heard these truisms before, we have heard others much like them.

But when “The Foremost Good Fortune’’ looks away from the big picture to focus on daily life, it comes alive. Conley lived in China from 2007 to 2009, witnessing the buildup to the Olympics, the election of Barack Obama, and the explosion of capitalism against a background of communism and corruption. Her running account of the profound strangeness of both expat existence and contemporary China is fascinating.

Conley lives in a brand-new concrete high rise adjacent to an old neighborhood of “narrow alleyways and one-room stone buildings.’’ She visits the Bag Lady who runs “the penny candy store of illegal purses’’ and accompanies a disastrous school field trip to an ecological farm with horrifying toilets and “sad-looking geese.’’ She eats “French finger food’’ at a “new Chinese fusion place’’ with fur-lined bathrooms, and chicken tendons, feet, and heads at Yummy’s, “China’s version of McDonald’s.’’ Weekend trips and vacations bring vivid depictions of the Great Wall, a Tibetan farm, and a communist model village. Chinese hospitals are their own foreign land. Whether humorous or serious, these passages are always fresh and engaging.

Conley also reveals how friendship buttresses women’s lives. Her accounts of “dating new women in Beijing’’ over karaoke and shopping are funny and painful. Eventually she finds women with whom she attends “book clubs and brunches and crafts fairs,’’ but cancer underscores their lack of true intimacy. Two moments of panicked revelation in grocery stores when an acquaintance tells Conley her husband is having an affair, and when she tells a woman she meets at the playground that she has breast cancer, are fleeting confidences met with offers of support that go nowhere. But when Conley returns home for treatment, her friends see her through it, and it is clear that they, almost more than her husband and sons, are what ground her.

Recovered and back home, Conley realizes, “I’ve let go of the metaphor I’d been carrying with me all these months — I can see that cancer doesn’t have to be a cultural isolation. Doesn’t have to be my own private China.’’ Readers can let go of the metaphors from the beginning and just appreciate the journey.

Rebecca Steinitz, a writer and editor who lives in Arlington, can be reached at rsteinitz@gmail .com.

THE FOREMOST GOOD FORTUNE By Susan Conley

Knopf, 276 pp., $25.95