In 2011, Susan Conley’s candid memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, took readers to Beijing around the time of the 2008 Olympics. Conley’s concise and poetic prose showed a side of Beijing few expats experience: the fears of a new cancer diagnosis while trying to navigate a new city with her husband and two young sons. This was followed in 2013 with a novel, Paris was the Place about a young American woman who moves to Paris during the 1980s AIDS crisis to be closer to her brother. She finds work at a refugee detention center where she helps women prepare for their asylum hearings.
Conley’s new novel, Elsey Come Home, returns to Beijing with a story about a young expat family in trouble. Elsey struggles to reconcile her dual roles as a painter and mother to two young daughters.
But Elsey’s largest dilemma is her drinking, the novel’s most compelling component. What starts out as sips of scotch during her painting years has turned into secretive beer runs when her Danish, electric-dance musician husband Lukas is out at work. Given her husband’s line of work, one might have expected him to have the drinking problem. But no matter how much Elsey tries, she can’t hide her drinking from Lukas or her daughters.
When the story opens, Lukas has given Elsey an ultimatum: attend a yoga retreat for a week in the mountains near Beijing to find peace and bring her drinking under control, or—as is strongly implied—their marriage is over.
The retreat participants comprise mostly English-speaking expats, some of whom Elsey already knows from their close-knit community in Beijing. Mei is a painter and the wife of one of the best-known Chinese artists, second only to Ai Weiwei, and is the only Chinese national there. All week, Elsey resists temptations to drink with the other participants, yet in periods of self-reflection, she cannot promise herself she’ll never drink again despite the threat to her marriage.
The drinking has context. As in her memoir, Conley also tackles illness. Elsey flashes back to her thyroid surgery in Hong Kong as well as her sister’s death from cancer years earlier, something never really discussed by her family; Elsey’s surviving, born-again Christian younger sister was too young to remember their deceased sister. Her sister’s death is a weight Elsey carries on her own.
That reviewers have praised the Beijing setting as exotic may say more about the reviewers than the book. Those familiar with China and Hong Kong might feel the author has tossed in every possible controversy: the plight of factory workers, abortion-as-birth control, dissident artists, disappeared activists, and kidnapped Hong Kong booksellers. I wonder if the story would have read more fluidly without some of these editorial asides.