By Carolyn See
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 8:19 PM
Beware of people who say they "love to travel," especially when they invite you on some glamorous excursion. My first husband, when we studied for a year in France, couldn't pronounce pamplemousse, and yet he craved grapefruit for breakfast. Every morning, I'd brave the contemptuous sneers of greengrocers to bring him his morning meal of sour citrus, which he chowed into triumphantly, while I sobbed and sulked and the baby shrieked for her breakfast, too. It was the '50s, we were only in our 20s, and we didn't know anything about marriage or love or breakfast or who has to apologize.
Susan Conley, on the other hand, would seem to be a bona fide grown-up with enough smarts to carry her through a long and momentous trip. "The Foremost Good Fortune" is a tough and gritty memoir about spending over two years in Beijing with her husband and two boys during the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics. She's traveled a lot, both with and without her husband, Tony. And Tony, thank goodness, has been studying Mandarin since his days at Stanford University. The two of them love to travel; they crave adventure; they yearn to grow as a family and as individuals.
They're not sightseeing at five-star hotels. They're attempting the hardest part of foreign travel: moving across the world as a group of four, attempting to masquerade as a "normal" family.
Early in the story, Susan is transported in a van by a gentlemanly driver named Lao Wu. Dizzy with jet lag, she arrives to pick up her sons, Aidan and Thorne, from their first day of school. They, predictably, burst into tears. The little one wails, "Do you have a snack for me? Do you have water? I'm thirsty. I'm hot." And "You should have come earlier," the older boy says, "You shouldn't have come to school so late." Of course, she's come to school perfectly on time. But she's dragged them into hell without telling either of them first.
The China they're in is contingent on things the family can't be sure of. They live in a fancy new high-rise, just standing in sandy soil - no sidewalks. Across the street, the remains of an old hutong, or traditional form of Chinese housing with public toilets, still stands. From their apartment window, they can see neighbors in the hutong strolling about in bathrobes, carrying toothbrushes. There's no "center" for Conley and her family, no middle. They want to live an authentic Chinese life, but what does that mean?
As with many hardworking American families, the husband is often absent, at work. Susan is uneasy in her dealings with the other moms at the international school her sons attend. She's shy and a little too educated for them. She's a writer, finishing a novel set in Paris. She frets because other mothers demand more homework from their kids.
She hires a Mandarin teacher and, later, a personal trainer, crankily coming to terms with this two-year crack in time where people smoke and blow their noses without using a handkerchief. She has to keep fielding her sons' frequent tantrums and enduring her husband's blissful ignorance about what she thinks of this life.
And then she gets cancer. The fretful, frightened mother absorbs the hit, almost shattered by the news and how it plays out in her family, in her body.
You hear about riveting prose, and this is it. The story is nailed down, noisily, in metal. "The Foremost Good Fortune" is just about as honest a book as you'll ever read. The trip Conley went on was to a far more complex place that she envisioned. This is a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
This Sunday in Outlook
l The Supreme Court's betrayal of equal rights.
l Our enduring conflict with al-Qaeda.
l George Gershwin's Broadway legacy.
l J.D. Salinger's hidden life.
l And the 400-year history of Harlem.
THE FOREMOST GOOD FORTUNE
By Susan Conley
Knopf. 276 pp.