Synopses & Reviews
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 mega-market; 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.
"'China sat in the rooms of our house like a question,' begins Conley in this luminous memoir of moving her family from Portland, Maine, to Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics. Conley's husband had accepted a dream job in Beijing, and they had decided to say 'yes to all the unknowns that will now rain down on us' including common difficulties faced by many families moving to a new city: a new school for her two young sons, finding new friends, and adjusting to a new apartment all compounded by the intensity of learning a difficult new language and adapting to a new culture. Conley's writing is at once spare and strong, and her description of having to present an unflappable front to her children while being hit 'with a rolling wave of homesickness' pulls the reader into her world like a close friend. As Conley starts to hit her stride in her adopted city, she discovers lumps in her breast and finds herself on a different kind of journey, which she describes as 'an essential aloneness that cancer has woven into my days.' She explains in this engaging memoir that after her treatment in the U.S. was over, she returned to Beijing, where she searched for the perfect Chinese talisman to 'ward off the leftover cancer juju' and hoping to help her boys move past their own fears of their mother's mortality. (Feb.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"An American mother recounts her struggle to adjust to a new life in Beijing — and then face another challenge, this one medical." O, The Oprah Magazine
"Compelling and humorous...Beautifully written and insightful on many levels." Booklist
“Fresh and engaging . . . [Conley’s] running account of the profound strangeness of both expat existence and contemporary China is fascinating.” The Boston Globe
“Conley’s lovely memoir powerfully reminds us that we draw our strength from the many little wonders of our everyday lives.” BookPage
About the Author
Susan Conley lived in Beijing for more than two years, and returned to Portland, Maine, with her husband and two sons in December 2009. She is cofounder and executive director of the Telling Room, a writers’ workshop and literary hub for the region. She was an associate editor at Ploughshares and has led creative writing seminars at Emerson College in Boston. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine as well as The Paris Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and other literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel and settling back into life in the States.
Reading Group Guide
1. What are some of the toughest adjustments for Susan when she first moves to China? Can you compare any scenes from your life with hers, specifically when you faced similar challenges of adjustment or the experience of feeling out of place?
2. How do Thorne and Aidan cope with culture shock in their individual ways?
3. Discuss Susan’s parenting in these volatile first months of China--which decisions of hers would you say are disasters and which are successes?
4. In some moments, Susan listens very intently to what Thorne and Aidan have to say. In other strategic moments, she climbs into “a room in her head,” shutting off her receptors, where she can “still see” her kids but “just can’t hear them” (p. 15). What are, in Susan’s words, her “secret mother superpowers?”
5. Considering the discussions about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua's memoir about raising her children according to strict Chinese customs, how did Susan react to Chinese parents’ attitude towards their children’s education?
6. Susan made friends with Chinese women. What did she learn from them about being a woman in China these days?
7. How would you characterize Susan’s reaction to getting cancer? What surprised you about her initial reactions? How did Susan’s experience in the Chinese hospital show cultural differences in medical attention? Throughout the book, what other disparities between Chinese and Western opinions about medicine came up? Did this reveal different cultural practices of health?
8. One of the toughest things Susan faced was talking to her children about the cancer. A therapist told her she had one lie about her cancer to her children and from then on, it had to be the truth. What do you think of that advice?
9. Throughout the book, what does Susan seem to learn about parenthood when she talks to her children about cancer and death?
10. In what different ways does disease affect each person in her family: Her husband, Tony. Her Children Aiden and Thorne…..
11. In the chapter called “Spaceship,” Susan and her mother take Thorne and Aidan to the radiation treatment. Afterwards, Susan says, “I’m still not sure if bringing them in was a mistake.” In your opinion and from what you know about the chapter, was it a mistake or not? Would or wouldn’t you have shown the kids that experience of cancer?
12. Does returning to China help Susan gain insight into her experience of cancer, or does it compound her confusion?
13. Susan often uses China, a land of foreignness, as a metaphor for the way cancer feels like a foreign experience. What other specific metaphors for cancer did you notice in the book, and how did these metaphors help Susan make sense of her experience?
14. In the chapter, “Starter Buddha,” Susan and Tony travel to the Beijing flea market to find a talisman that will “ward of the leftover cancer juju.” Does Susan in this chapter exhibit a changing attitude toward cancer? Do you have any meaningful talismans in your life?
15. Compare Susan’s experiences of China before cancer and after cancer. Did Susan’s encounter with cancer and mortality change her approach to life in China?
16. What are some of your favorite comments made by Thorne and Aidan? Pick a few of them and consider how Thorne and Aidan often unintentionally become like zen teachers. What do you learn from them? How does Susan’s representation of her children change the way you view kids in general?
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of The Foremost Good Fortune, Susan Conley’s “Fresh and engaging” (Boston Globe) new memoir.