With its front cover image, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Foremost Good Fortune is yet another expat romp through the vagaries of laowai life. But you wouldn’t be further from the truth. Set mostly in Beijing, where Conley had relocated for her husband’s job, it’s primarily a book about cancer, but steers away from the clichés associated with disease-and-recovery memoirs. It is also a treatise on family, and an honest depiction of children caught up in a situation they don’t fully understand.
Conley’s husband Tony speaks fluent Mandarin and slips seamlessly into Beijing life, but for Conley it’s not so easy, especially since she has to settle their two young sons, Thorne and Aidan, into their new routine. She speaks only the most basic Chinese and views people who speak fluently as “in the club” while she is firmly on the outside. Through the boys’ eventual enthusiasm for their new home (despite initial reluctance and anxiety), Conley finds her feet and begins to enjoy Beijing.
Cancer doesn’t make its appearance until a third of the way through the book. In the chapter entitled “Hall of Martial Valor” (each section is named after a hall in the Forbidden City, anchoring the narrative to Beijing) Conley is diagnosed with cancer and returns temporarily to the States for treatment involving a mastectomy and radiation. When she comes back to Beijing, she is preoccupied with the cancer returning, which colors the rest of the book.
Conley’s relationship with her children is beautifully depicted–never over-emotional, always truthful. Their revulsion at the sight of her radiation scars is hard-hitting, and their relentless questions about mortality are incredibly moving.
Eventually the family leaves Beijing permanently and goes back to the US, keen for the boys to experience an American suburban childhood free of the “logistical quagmire of traffic and confusing Chinese addresses.” Most important, however, is the desire to leave the place that has become inextricably linked with cancer–to go back to a world they inhabited “when we hadn’t learned the Chinese word for disease.” Cancer has become a country to Conley, one she needs to escape, and it is through compartmentalizing it that she stops it from encroaching on her Beijing experience.
What is most striking about this book is the fact that it defies expectation. It isn’t a homily on China, nor does it go in the other direction, namely the veiled critique into which many an expat memoir descends. Nor is it a chronicle of cancer, with an undertone of, “Why me?” Conley is pragmatic, never self-indulgent, analytical and often unemotional towards her cancer. Her writing style is matter-of-fact, leading the reader through her daily life in Beijing and then America as she undergoes treatment. The Foremost Good Fortune is not a China book, nor is it a cancer book. It is a compelling memoir of a woman–a wife, mother and writer–who happens to move to Beijing and contract the disease. At its root it is a book about family, about change and about adjustment.
What: The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley
Published by: Knopf
Where: Available on Taobao
How much: RMB209 plus RMB9 shipping
Articles You May Like...