At first glance, The Foremost Good Fortune seems like it’s going to be your classic fish-out-of-water memoir. Susan Conley is an American woman who struggles with a sense of dislocation after her husband lands a two-year job in Beijing and they move there with their two young sons. He speaks Chinese well, is busy and engaged with his work life, and is excited to be there. She stays home with the boys, 4 and 6, and is left to figure out much on her own. The difficulty of navigating a place so vastly different from her home in Portland, Me., hangs over her like the city’s thick pollution cloud.
But a third of the way through, the book takes a turn when Conley is diagnosed with breast cancer, at the age of 40, and in need of a mastectomy. The family returns to the States for her surgery and radiation treatment, then goes back to Beijing, where she now feels even more dislocated-not just from China, but from her own family, her own body. Will she ever feel “normal” again?
This memoir is about far more than just China and cancer, two worthy subjects on their own. It’s really a book about parenting. In the most insightful passages, Conley details the thought process that goes into dealing with her sons, who are having their own adjustment problems. As she tries to deduce what is going on in their heads, we learn what is going on in hers. When the boys complain about their new school in China, she subjugates her own anxiety in order to say and do what will be most helpful to them. Should she lie, tell the truth, redirect them, or just listen? It’s a fascinating process to watch. Her patience is infinite, even when simple things like getting them on the school bus leaves her practically in tears, even when they fly into hysterics when a pigeon hits their apartment window, even when they annoy her, and even when they ask if and when she will die.
It’s difficult to move halfway around the world and try to make a home for yourself-even a temporary one-in an alien land. It’s harder still to be diagnosed with a serious illness, undergo surgery and treatment, and cope with the aftermath of that process. Undertaking both at the same time seems overwhelming. How can you take care of others in the midst of your own mess? When you parent at home, in perfect health, you have a box full of tools, techniques, and tricks at your disposal. In a foreign country, that toolbox is severely limited. Conley’s ability to describe her challenges honestly, without self-pity, leads you not only to relate to her, but also to admire her.