- The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Knopf (February 8, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-030759406
Back-of-the-book blurb: 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.
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, this wry and poignant memoir is a celebration of family and a candid exploration of mortality and belonging.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: Susan Conley gives equal play to the three unknowns in her family life – the daily challenges of parenthood, adjusting to a new life halfway around the world, and, her diagnosis of breast cancer. The illness underscores the first two struggles, confirming that perhaps there are no “right” answers, only the “best” answer for each mother/ex-pat/patient.
The memoir is linear in time, yet the chapters are short, and read like journal entries that have been extended into essays. This is not a negative, my point is that they are injected with emotion, but with the distance of time, so that Conley can fill in details and color around the events.
I connected with the universality of the struggles of parenthood, and appreciate Conley’s blunt (and somewhat funny, to one who nods in understanding!) honesty:
I should state for the record that I have secret mother superpowers. Yes. I have the ability to detach from my children and climb into my own mind at the exact moments my boys might be telling me something they think is vitally important. And I know. I know. It’s not necessarily safe. It’s not necessarily compassionate. But what I do is build a small room in my head – closet-sized – and go inside and close the door. I can still see them; I just can’t quite hear them. I go inside this room so I can think clearly. I go inside because the two boys exhaust me. They never let up. … I go inside the room in my mind because it’s a way not to blow my top and lose it with them.
Conley writes about routines that will be familiar to any mother who’s moved with children, settling into new school routines, figuring out where to buy specialty groceries, and the dreaded “dating” of other other women – assessing each other’s children for playdate potential, assessing each other to see if the common ground of children might extend to a real friendship. We have moved four times as a family, and it has been relatively easy to get the kids adjusted to new people and places (granted, we haven’t moved much away from the eastern seaboard of the US; an international, or even cross-country move, has its own set of challenges) – all my energy has gone into making them comfortable in their new home. I really connected with Conley’s desire (need, even) for a true female friend of her own.
Once the children are reasonably settled, Conley can spend more time acclimating herself to Beijing. She works with Rose, a private Chinese teacher, to learn the language. Again, her memoir softens the struggle of learning this complex language with a bit of wry humor:
… Chinese is an old and vast lexicon, and there are thousands of those hand-drawn characters. And then the tones – four different intonations on rising and falling syllables. Things can get murky with the tones. You can say you’d like to go to the grocery store. Or at least that’s what you think you said, but because you missed the fourth tone, you said something about a boyfriend in high school. This language is slippery.
Next Rose explains that you don’t conjugate verbs for the future or the past. This seems fitting for a country in the middle of reinventing the past. …
When Conley is diagnosed with breast cancer, her walls come tumbling down. How and where will she be treated? What will she tell their two young sons about her illness? Will she find support in her community in China? Will her American friends and family offer a different understanding? She grapples with these questions like any cancer patient might, regardless of where she receives her diagnosis, including thoughts like
… there’s no litmus test to prove that a woman’s been cured of breast cancer. There’s just the waiting. Waiting and living and living some more.
… most people, even the people who love me dearest, don’t always know how to talk about cancer.
Susan Conley gives a fairly complete picture of who she is in The Foremost Good Fortune; she’s a mother, an ex-pat, and a cancer patient, among other defining traits. This memoir is a reflection of two years of the author’s life, and explores the results, or extended consequences, of those two years.
About the author: Susan Conley has received two MacDowell Colony fellowships for her work, as well as a Breadloaf Writers fellowship and a Massachusetts Arts Council Grant. Her work has been published in The Paris Review, the Harvard Review and The North American Review. She was editor at Ploughshares Magazine in Boston and taught creative writing and literature at several colleges. With two friends, she founded The Telling Room, a creative writing lab in southern Maine. A chapter of The Foremost Good Fortune was excerpted in the January 2011 New York Times Magazine “Lives” column.