The Foremost Good Fortune
by Susan Conley
Reviewed by Debra Gwartney
"Mine your quirks" is one of the many pieces of advice writer and teacher Phillip Lopate offers those attempting to write personal narrative. Whether or not she heard it from this nonfiction guru, Susan Conley does some terrific mining in her new book, The Foremost Good Fortune, a memoir about her decision to accompany her husband -- taking along their two children -- to Beijing for a several-year stay.
Conley deftly balances humor, poignancy and a fierce honesty in a book that's already enjoying success as an Oprah Magazine selection, and she captures perfectly the distortion of normal family rhythms when the four move to the other side of the planet: the ways they cling to one another, the ways they push apart. Conley is marvelously adept at giving readers just the right doses of her boys' quirky quotidian habits -- (7-year-old Thorne tends to trill little ditties through the house while 5-year-old Aiden dresses in costumes and bombards his parents with clever questions, and both boys turn to Honey Nut Cheerios as the ultimate comfort food) -- as well as her own idiosyncratic manner of coping with the pleasures and burdens of living far, far from home.
In many ways, Thorne and Aiden are the stars of the book -- portrayed with such care that when one of them utters a zinger of a line with startlingly perfect timing, as they both tend to, the words don't come off as cloying sentimentality but instead a sideways delivery of the truth most needed in the moment. "This hug will be for 10 minutes," Aiden tells his mother soon after he realizes that all is not right with her. Both boys know just how to get to the heart of things after Conley discovers lumps in her breast that turn out to be a virulent cancer, and a family already slightly off-kilter is thrown into disarray and panic.
As honest as Conley is about her fear of dying, her impatience with boys who can be rascals, and her conflicted feelings about life in China (reveling in the beauty, hating the bad air), her writing does falter around a curious unwillingness to grapple with her own position of privilege. The book is written mostly in the present tense, so that we're exposed only to the woman in the moment, the protagonist who, for instance, is scornful of a Chinese nurse because she's not heard of the country of Israel and is puzzled by Conley's use of the term "Middle East."
"What do they talk about in social studies in Chinese schools?" Conley asks herself. "Do they ever look at maps? Or globes? I am grumpy. I don't like this place." Surely it occurred to Conley, a bright and worldly woman, that the nurse might have known more about Asian genocide and resettlement than about geopolitics -- or at least realize that the geographical designation "Middle East" doesn't have the same meaning to someone in Beijing as it does to a citizen of Portland, Maine.
Mostly, as a reader I longed for Conley to acknowledge more overtly that few of the millions of women lightning-struck by breast cancer can hop on a plane and fly to the best medical care in the world; nor can many mothers drop everything, as Conley's mother does, to tend to matters as their daughters recover. She is extraordinarily fortunate, as the title suggests, to have received such a level of care.
But, still, this is a book of fortitude, of good humor, of a love that is absolute and enduring. Best of all it's a story of survival that allows us to get to know two boys who, truly, could not be more real or more wonderful.