Exile in Cancer-land
A Maine woman’s trip to China became a greater journey.
By Kathleen Meil
You wouldn’t expect to see yourself in Susan Conley’s new memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York; hardback; 304 pages; $25.95). Not unless you’ve moved your young family from Portland, Maine, to Beijing, China; or negotiated a new and very foreign language, culture, and parenting style; or faced breast cancer far from the friends and landscape that have always sustained you.
But you will.
When Conley sat down to write her debut memoir, she imagined she was writing to a close friend. It helped that her close friends were all thousands of miles away and that — aside from a few months home for treatment and a few treasured visits — writing really was her only lifeline.
The result is 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 Foremost Good Fortune is a special treat for readers who share Conley’s truths — who are mothers, or cancer survivors, or lovers of Maine.
But as Conley reveals in the strange, sweet, terrifying, and hilarious details of China and cancer-land, she bridges the isolation that so defined her early time there and reaches out to everyone.
At the beginning, Conley planned to write a travelogue. Her husband’s job in Beijing was the excuse for what she calls “a great family adventure,” and she imagined flipping through a stack of photographs with her readers, describing the sights and smells and scenes of China. There are dumplings in outdoor markets, bad air days, ancient villages, government censorship, black-market handbags, and the kindness of strangers-becoming-friends.
The lovely surprise is that she turns the same observant eye on her memories of Maine. She describes actual photographs here, too — like the black-and-white portraits of her two sons in their grandmother’s vegetable garden, by a float in Phippsburg, in an old truck in their Portland driveway — and details so true that they inscribe a tangible character, Maine, into the story. Fellow Mainers will recognize “the giant chocolate chip cookie at the bakery” in Wiscasset (Treats!), the “Wyeth paintings in a refurbished white barn” (the Farnsworth!), and the “wood-oven pizza place he knew” (Flatbread!), and smile.
Far from these familiar landmarks and constantly missing the ocean, Conley’s focus on her children allows her to make sense of life in a foreign land. During her family’s first weeks in Beijing, four-year-old Aidan coped by nurturing an obsession with Johnny Cash, playing “Ring of Fire” around the clock and using Cash as a reference point for everything. Conley finds herself explaining that, no, Johnny Cash was not actually on fire, and, yes, the Great Wall of China is older than Johnny Cash. Though the circumstances are remarkable, the head-shaking strangeness of motherhood is familiar.
Motherhood continues to drive Conley forward once she gets to the “story within the China story” — her breast cancer. That story includes health care in a foreign land, at the hands of doctors who don’t know how to do needle biopsies. It includes flying back to Maine for a mastectomy, moving in with her parents during radiation, and struggling with the loneliness of illness atop the loneliness of China. It transforms a funny, thoughtful travelogue into something darker and more raw, and brings an immediacy to her meditations on motherhood.
Conley relies heavily on the cancer/China metaphor, describing each as a kind of cultural dislocation and explaining each as a lake that you’re either in or not. It would be easy to overdo this, but somehow Conley doesn’t. Moments that might seem pat — like her observation, atop the Great Wall, that cancer looms as large as China — read as heartbreakingly honest instead.
Conley calls The Foremost Good Fortune the story of her family’s great journey to China, its detour to cancer, and finally their emergence back out again into life. Although the memoir ends with the family home again, comfortably ensconced in Maine and in health, Conley knows there’s more to come. China still “sits in the rooms of [their] house like a question,” just as it did in the opening pages, only now it’s a different question: when will we go back? Cancer is there, too, this time, and despite the best of prognoses, it also sits like a question: when will it come back?
There is an inevitability to both answers that foresees more struggle, hopes for more good fortune, and can only be described as a haunting peace.