three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
Susan Conley
user_rating: 
0

A-The Foremost Good FortuneSusan Conley has published extensively in newspapers and magazines and has taught creative writing and literature at several colleges. She lives in Maine with her husband and two children.

The Topic: Every year, many Americans follow their spouses to new jobs, but not many of them go to the other side of the world. But that's exactly what Susan Conley decided to do, with five- and seven-year-old sons in tow, when her husband was offered a position in China. The Foremost Good Fortune describes the experience Conley and her family had in Beijing in a two-year period that included the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the election of Barack Obama. Despite early difficulties making friends and learning the language, the family eventually finds a new normal--until that normal is shattered by an unexpected disease that cares nothing for Conley's geographic location.
Knopf. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307594068

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"You hear about riveting prose, and this is it. ... This is a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being." Carolyn See

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[W]hen The Foremost Good Fortune looks away from the big picture to focus on daily life, it comes alive. ... Her running account of the profound strangeness of both expat existence and contemporary China is fascinating." Rebecca Steinitz

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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. ... 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." Debra Gwartney

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The disease becomes a piece of the larger narrative, but does not dominate her entire experience. As it should not. In graceful and honest prose, she effectively tells both sides of her tale [as a fish out of water and a cancer patient]. She gets us to identify and empathize." Christina Eng

Critical Summary

In general, critics enjoyed Conley's memoir about coping with the alternating difficulties of children, China, and cancer. They were impressed by the work's honesty (particularly about Conley's disease), the immediacy of its description, and its compelling prose. While sometimes chafing at the limits of the work's genre--memoirs about motherhood, cancer, and the expat experience abound, though the work does not encompass all of these subjects simultaneously--in the end reviewers found The Foremost Good Fortune an original and emotionally compelling story.