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The Foremost Good Fortune

Cover of The Foremost Good Fortune

The Foremost Good Fortune

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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 megamarket; 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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 megamarket; 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    This is my third day in Beijing, and jet lag still pulls me down by my ankles. I lean back in the seat, my mind thick with sleep, and the van slows so I can count twenty waitresses lined up outside the Din Tai Fung dumpling house. The girls wear blue cotton qipaos and do jumping jacks on the sidewalk, then they salute a head waitress who stands on a small, black wooden box. Next they let out a cheer and march in a circle on the sidewalk. The head waitress calls out more instructions (how to fold the napkins? How to take a drink order?) and the girls yell back in a call and response. Then they salute their leader one more time and march into the restaurant.

    People don't march much where I'm from. Maybe the occasional high- school band at the annual Bath Memorial Day parade. But marching is very much the way here-some kind of simulation of the hard-nosed Chinese army way of life? Some kind of leftover from the Communist heyday? Except we're still in the Communist heyday, aren't we?

    At the apartment complex where we live there are more marching guards. They salute me every time I come back to the building. It's creepy. I want to tell them I'm not their senior officer. No. I am a forty-year-old American wife and mother of two who can't remember how to pronounce the number eight in Mandarin. This is a problem, because eight is where we live. It's China's luckiest number, and let me say right now that numerology is intrinsic to the whole China operation. Numbers here have secret, mystical powers. There are no fourth floors in China because when spoken, the Chinese character for the number 4 sounds too much like the character for death. So what good fortune that our apartment sits on the lucky eighth floor of a building called Park Avenue, across the street from Beijing's biggest city park. It's mostly Chinese families at Park Avenue-well-off Beijingren, the term used for people born and raised in the capital. Many are people who somehow got out during Mao's reign and have returned because China's prospects now look so good. There's also a big handful of Taiwanese here and Hong Kong Chinese and a smattering of Europeans.

    We could have lived in Palm Springs or Champagne Villas, Yosemite or Central Park, Park Place or the Beijing Riviera-vast compounds whose names move beyond kitsch into the surreal. To get through the front door of our apartment lobby, we say "Ni hao" to the teenaged guard. He says, "Ni hao" back and salutes us. Then we say "Xie xie," which means thank you, and he says "Bu keqi" (you're welcome), and lets us on the elevator. He salutes us one more time to make sure. We play out this Beckett-like scene of absurdity many times a day, until the humor in it has dried up and flown away on the winds of the Gobi Desert.

    Tony has come to introduce credit-rating systems to the Chinese state- owned banks. This means that he meets with senior financial officers, trying to explain in Mandarin why buying complicated American computer programs is crucial to China's success. Sometimes Tony has to pinch himself to make sure it's him and not an imposter wearing that blue banker's suit. Because when Tony lived in Beijing the first time, he had a different gig.

    In 1985 Tony took a backpack and a Nikon and headed out on China's trains photographing border zones-places the government here officially calls "ethnic minority regions." Tony started in Yunnan where it meets up with Laos and Burma, and then went northwest to Xinjiang Province where it rubs shoulders with today's "stans": Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. Next he went south to Tibet and got an early visa for Lhasa. He'd been schooled in Mandarin and had a knack for conversing with strangers,...

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.

Reviews-
  • Elizabeth Gilbert

    "This is a beautiful story of womanhood, motherhood, travel and loss, written by an author of rare and radiant grace."

  • Peter Hessler, author of Oracle Bones "Susan Conley has written a moving and deeply thoughtful memoir about her years in China. The Foremost Good Fortune begins with one dislocation -- a family's move to Beijing -- and then proceeds to another challenge on a completely different level, as Conley is forced to cope with a cancer diagnosis. This book is for anybody who has felt out of place, whether in a foreign country or a doctor's office."
  • Kathleen Meil, DownEast.com "Heartbreakingly honest . . . strange, sweet, terrifying, and hilarious . . . A beautifully intimate story of homesickness and culture shock, of motherhood and illness, of China and cancer, and the unwavering truths of family and friends and home . . . The lovely surprise is that [Conley] turns the same observant eye on her memories of Maine."
  • Ellen Tarlin, Double X "Conley's ability to describe her challenges honestly, without self-pity, leads you not only to relate to her, but also to admire her."
  • Judith Chettle, Richmond Times-Dispatch "Rewardingly perceptive and frank."
  • Christina Eng, San Francisco Chronicle "Graceful and honest, humorous and insightful."
  • Carolyn See, The Washington Post "You hear about riveting prose, and this is it. The Foremost Good Fortune is just about as honest a book as you'll ever read . . . a beautiful [story] about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being."
  • Rebecca Adler Warren, More "Startling, poignant."
  • Karen Holt, O, The Oprah Magazine One of O's 10 Titles to Pick Up Now: "An American mother recounts her struggle to adjust to a new life in Beijing--and then face another challenge, this one medical."
  • Debra Gwartney, The Oregonian "Terrific . . . Conley deftly balances humor, poignancy and fierce honesty. She captures perfectly the distortion of normal family rhythms [and] is marvelously adept at giving readers just the right doses of her boys' quirky quotidian habits, as well as her own manner of coping with the pleasures and burdens of living far, far from home . . . This is a book of fortitude, of good humor, of love that is absolute and enduring."
  • Rebecca Steinitz, The Boston Globe "Fresh and engaging . . . [Conley's] running account of the profound strangeness of both expat existence and contemporary China is fascinating."
  • Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage "Conley's lovely memoir powerfully reminds us that we draw our strength from the many little wonders of our everyday lives."
  • Deborah Donovan, Booklist "Compelling and humorous...Beautifully written and insightful on many levels."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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