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The Dissident: A Novelby Nell Freudenberger
"Despite its neat plotting, this novel is unmistakably slow — no hyperventilating for Freudenberger, no messy clamoring for multiple literary references — and it does the unglamorous work of chipping the hard shells off its movingly drawn characters. The Dissident is not the kind of book that knocks a reader down, but it does have the power to linger." Anna Godbersen, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
From the PEN/Malamud Award-winning author of Lucky Girls comes a bold, intricately woven first novel about an enigmatic stranger who disrupts the life of one American family.
Yuan Zhao, a celebrated Chinese performance artist and political dissident, has accepted a one year's artist's residency in Los Angeles. He is to be a Visiting Scholar at the St. Anselm's School for Girls, teaching advanced art, and hosted by one of the school's most devoted families: the wealthy if dysfunctional Traverses. But when their guest arrives, the Traverses are preoccupied with their own problems. Cece — devoted mother and contemporary art enthusiast — worries about the recent arrest of her son, Max. Unable to communicate with her husband, Gordon, a psychiatrist distracted by his passion for genealogical research, she turns to Gordon's wayward brother, Phil. Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old Olivia Travers is just relieved that her classmates seem to be ignoring the weird Chinese art teacher living in her pool house — at least until a brilliant but troublesome new student appears in his class.
The dissident, for his part, is delighted to be left alone. His relationship to the 1989 Democracy Movement and his past in a Beijing underground artists' community together give him reason for not wanting to be scrutinized too carefully. The trouble starts when he and his American hosts begin to see one another with clearer eyes.
A novel about secrets, love, and the shining chaos of everyday American life, The Dissident is a remarkable and surprising group portrait, done with a light, sure hand. Reviewing Lucky Girls, the Seattle Times praised Freudenberger's "merciless and often hilarious eye for family dynamics, and her equally sharp eye for cultures in collision." These talents and others are on full display here, as the author captures her characters in their struggles with art, with identity — and with one another. As the New York Times Book Review observed, "Young writers as ambitious — and as good — as Nell Freudenberger give us a reason for hope."
"Freudenberger fulfills the promise of her 2003 collection of short stories, Lucky Girls, in her expansive first novel. Yuan Zhao, a Chinese performance artist entangled in the subversive community of the Beijing East Village (an artist enclave located in Beijing's 'industrial dump'), moves to Los Angeles for an exhibition of his work and to teach studio art to gifted students at the St. Anselm's School for Girls. Upon arrival at the Traverses', his host family, Zhao finds himself in a domestic minefield: Cece Travers, the family matriarch, is having an affair with her brother-in-law, Phil. Meanwhile, her children fumble through adolescence, and her husband, psychiatrist Gordon, phones in his familial obligations. Freudenberger juxtaposes Zhao's early artist days in the East and his unrequited love for the woman he left behind with his solitary life in Los Angeles, where he grows obsessed with a Chinese art student. Under a blanket of cultural misunderstandings and xenophobia, Freudenberger tackles big questions about art: what makes an artist; how artists and writers borrow from each other; and how they appropriate details from the lives of their friends and families. Freudenberger sometimes missteps into humdrum Hollywood satire and uninspired relationship drama, but Zhao is distinctly fresh; it's when describing his journey that Freudenberger's novel takes flight. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The short-story writer Nell Freudenberger has written her first novel, and it's about a well-to-do Los Angeles family who takes in a Chinese political artist for a year-long residency. Although the novel is called 'The Dissident' and interlaces a first-person account by this artist with its third-person narration, the book comes fully alive only when the family appears in view. Yuan Zhao,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the dissident, begins the book, filling us in on his recent history, which twines around the story of his cousin, a more famous artist known for reasons of political safety as X. Already something is off. It's not only that he peppers his stories with clues of some personal secret but also that the accounts themselves, though rich in detail and filled with accurate transliterations from the Chinese, do not add up to a wholly convincing person. Freudenberger persuasively puts across both the pettiness of Chinese daily life and the let's-put-on-a-show excitement of a burgeoning Beijing art scene, but there is such a thing as spirit, and despite all her research, she has no access to that of the main character. At times, Yuan seems nothing more than a walking catalogue raisonne: Fact follows incident follows description; the light behind his eyes is always of the same evenness. But then the Travers family comes on the scene, and the light starts getting more dappled and more varied. Cece Travers, Yuan's hostess, is 40-something, the mother of two, and despite an affair a decade ago, has reconciled herself to a sexless marriage with Gordon, a psychotherapist more passionate about his amateur genealogical sleuthing than about her. Cece is the hub of a shimmering network of family members each with his or her own small but meaningful predicament, and it is a pleasure to turn from the blandness of Yuan's narration to this alert, nimble, effortlessly assembled world of early-21st-century American manners and mores. The Travers family, being upper middle class, super-liberal and Southern Californian, seems at first ripe for comedy. And one could be forgiven for thinking, based on nothing more than a rough outline of the book, that the foreigner's cohabitation with them had been jury-rigged to yield the raucous, if easy, farce of (as the book's jacket puts it) 'cultures in collision.' But Freudenberger is a gentler, more generous, more expansive writer than that. Thank goodness, or we would have, instead of the poignant, full creation that is Cece Travers, some bubblehead gorgon waiting for her cross-cultural comeuppance. Cece's teenage son, Max, has a Latina girlfriend who lives in Echo Park, infamous for its gang warfare. The two met while Max was doing community service after being caught by the cops with a gun in his car. The Traverses' other teenager, Olivia, has just become friends with a popular girl who is a shoplifter and a snob. As heavy as this sounds, Freudenberger's touch is light. She arrays these developments as merely two among many plates in the banquet of Cece's life. This has to do, I think, with the modesty of her prose — a skillful modesty that, like Cece Travers herself, seeks to submerge a roiling world underneath an exterior of calm. Cece is the book's miracle, and I dreaded leaving her to return to Yuan Zhao. To be fair, there is a short stretch in the middle when the artist does indeed come alive. Plopped down in a private girls' school, where he teaches as part of his artist's residency, he is saved from an existence that increasingly comes to seem, as the novel progresses, just a series of items to be checked off a list on the way to the book's final revelation. As for that revelation, Freudenberger keeps dropping coy hints: 'I was not meant to be a dissident'; 'I have always been impressionable, skilled at mimicry'; 'I am ... a brilliant copyist.' And that's just on the first page. It could be that Freudenberger undertook a first-person account by Yuan because she is sensitive to the bad taste of trotting out an 'other' to serve as a catalyst for the personal transformation of affluent Americans, whose predicaments are then put in the foreground. She wanted Yuan to have equal weight. This scrupulousness deserves praise, even if, in the end, the experiment is not wholly successful." Reviewed by
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"The book is significantly flawed, by awkwardly handled exposition and several uncomfortably close echoes of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Still, its vivid characters and page-turning plot make it a more than commendable first novel." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] charming, breezy read....[Freudenberger's] characters, while inviting, rarely feel complicated enough to respond to her story's delicately layered conceit — or guard its not-so-jarring secret." The Village Voice
"The overall effect...can be somewhat dry, unhelped by the occasional stiff attempts at humor. Nonetheless, Ms. Freudenberger's examination of the effect of lies in art and life succeeds in revealing interesting truths about both." Wall Street Journal
"Though The Dissident is emphatically a first novel...such moments of crystalline clarity are themselves 'rare birds,' the stuff of second, third and fourth novels. This is cause for celebration, not schadenfreudenberger — but don't hold your breath." Los Angeles Times
"The Dissident offers readers a profusion of reflections and insights that will linger long after the book has been read. Unfortunately, there is also a clutter of derivative images that prove distracting and less than engaging..." San Francisco Chronicle
A famous performance artist and political activist accepts an artist's residency in Los Angeles, where he is hosted by a wealthy Beverly Hills family. As he becomes increasingly tangled in their lives, the author opens the door on his past in Beijing, revealing an artistic subculture at the height of its influence.
About the Author
Nell Freudenberger's collection of stories, Lucky Girls, was a New York Times Notable Book and won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2005 Freudenberger was the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. She lives in New York City.
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