Review by Penny Harmon
Coastal Journal contributor
In the year 2008, Susan Conley moves to China with her husband and two young sons. While her husband, Tony, is excited for this job transfer, Conley is more the reluctant traveler, worried on whether or not she and her husband made the right choices for the family. Her uncertainties warrant the reader’s sympathy. After all, what parent would not worry about bringing two young children into Beijing, when neither can speak the language.
Conley writes about her transitional period, the beauty of China, the poverty, and her own efforts in learning the language. She watches as each of sons wrestle with the changes. She writes of her son Thorne’s singing non-stop, “Thorne’s first-grade teacher, Diba, is calling the singing a delayed response to moving to China-part of the same ‘spillover stress’…It’s like watching an involuntary tic…We can’t get him to stop. Except it has to stop. Because it is driving me crazy.” She struggles to deal with Aiden’s inability to sleep in his own bed.
Amidst the chaos the family is facing in adapting to a new country, Conley discovers lumps on her breast. A visit to the hospital in Beijing results in nothing more than indifference and the doctor’s lack of concern for her health. It takes a call to her doctor in the States to reassure her that she must insist on a lumpectomy. What they find is cancer. It is the one C word that was never expected and sends Conley spiraling down toward a life she never expected.
After returning to the U.S. for a mastectomy, Conley, once again, finds herself on a plane to China after finishing her series of radiation treatments. For a second time, she is dealing with how to live in China, but this time, she is also trying to deal with the cancer. It is near the end of her stay in the country that she understands she must forgive all the other people in her life who do not have cancer. A stronger woman emerges. Conley writes, “I’ve let go of the metaphor I’d been carrying with me all these months-I can see that cancer doesn’t have to be a cultural isolation. Doesn’t have to be my own private China. I have no use for that comparison anymore. I’ve made my peace with both countries.”
This memoir is about struggle, determination, and acceptance. More importantly, it is about the will to live. As Conley takes us into her daily life, she allows the to feel and face the adversity right along with her. This book is a true treasure.
Susan Conley is a Maine native. She grew up in Woolwich and now resides in Portland. After returning to the U.S., she finished her novel and is currently working on her second.