Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Dream of the Blue Room
  • Written by Michelle Richmond
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780553386547
  • Our Price: $15.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Dream of the Blue Room

Buy now from Random House

  • Dream of the Blue Room
  • Written by Michelle Richmond
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780553907001
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Dream of the Blue Room

Dream of the Blue Room

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

A Novel

Written by Michelle RichmondAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michelle Richmond


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 16, 2010
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-553-90700-1
Published by : Bantam Bantam Dell
Dream of the Blue Room Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Dream of the Blue Room
  • Email this page - Dream of the Blue Room
  • Print this page - Dream of the Blue Room


Jenny and Amanda Ruth were best friends in a small Alabama town until eighteen-years-old Amanda Ruth was murdered. Now, fourteen years later, Jenny has traveled with her husband to China to scatter Amanda Ruth’s ashes and finally fulfill her friend’s dream of visiting her Chinese father’s homeland. It’s also, Jenny hopes, an opportunity to repair her own troubled marriage. But as she journeys through a foreign landscape, the guilty secrets of Jenny’s past rise up and her life will be inexorably altered.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog (“Highly recommended [for fans of] authors like Jodi Picoult and Jacquelyn Mitchard” —Library Journal, starred review) and No One You Know (“Luminous . . . will keep you thinking long after the last page has been turned”—Family Circle), Michelle Richmond’s stunning novel captivates with its depiction of the powerful intimacies of marriage, friendship, and family that shape our paths and the bonds of home that buoy us—wherever home may be.


Chapter One

In the dream Amanda Ruth is not dead, she is only sleeping. We are lying under a sycamore tree beside a rugged mountain path. The grass around us is littered with the pits of fruits we have eaten: peaches and figs, plums and nectarines. Her fingers are still wet from our feast. In the cool mountain light, they glisten. So elegantly she sleeps, one leg bent slightly beneath her, one arm flung wide on the grass.

I slide the strap of her sundress off her smooth brown shoulder. She does not stir. All down the front of her dress are small blue buttons. I undo them one by one, careful not to wake her. A fine rain begins to fall. I feel her fingers in my hair and discover that she is awake, smiling, watching me.

"You look different," I say. "Older."

"Yes. Thirty-two, now."

"But I thought you had died."

"Died?" she says. "What do you mean?"

I tell her never-mind. I tell her it was only a dream. She asks me to describe it. I say, "You were dead. You'd been dead for a long time. I missed you terribly. I went to China to find you."

"No," she says. "You went to China to lose me."

"That's right. To let go of you. But now it doesn't matter."

The wind rustles the tree above us; raindrops are slapping the leaves, the sound getting increasingly louder. Soon, the drops will work their way down through the branches and begin to fall on us.

"You went to China?"


"And what did you see?"

"Well," I close my eyes, trying to remember, trying to come up with some answer, some truth that will satisfy her.

"Was it wonderful?"

"Yes," I want to say. I want to tell her that China is everything she dreamt it would be, a strange but familiar place. I want to tell her that I finally lived up to my promise, and we have been to the center of the earth together. But then the rain stops, the mountains disappear, and Amanda Ruth is gone.

Chapter Two

The shellac is smooth beneath my fingers, rising slightly over the photos, a random Braille I know by heart. Amanda Ruth would have laughed at it, her mother's lack of good taste, the collage of photographs she carefully cut and arranged on the round cookie tin: Amanda Ruth as a baby, wrapped in her proud father's arms; Amanda Ruth in her majorette's costume with gold piping at the shoulders; Amanda Ruth sitting on the narrow bed in her dorm room at Montevallo. I hold the tin in my lap and recline on a deck chair. Its metal seat is wet from the spray.

My husband, Dave, is down in our cabin sleeping. He does the sleeping for both of us. I do the staying awake. I am an insomniac of the old order. I spend long nights waiting for my mind to snap shut, mornings bent over the coffeepot, hands shaking from exhaustion and caffeine. I haven't slept since we left New York two days ago.

It is five past midnight. Muddled voices drift up from the lounge. Lights glimmer along the riverbank. There is the cool dark drift of the Yangtze, the smell of something not quite clean. I feel a welcome heaviness approaching, a soft weight pushing against my eyes. I dream of water, a white body drifting naked upon it. I extend my arm and bring the body toward me, look into the round wet face of Amanda Ruth. She opens her eyes, takes my hand and stands; we are on land now, walking, the jagged pebbles of the riverbank cutting into our bare feet. Amanda Ruth is eager to show me something. We walk for many hours, coming at last upon the mouth of a cave. The entrance to the cave is thick with growing things.

When I wake, it feels as though I have slept for a long time. I lift my watch to catch the moonlight, scan its small silver face.

"Twelve forty-five," a voice says. Startled, I turn to see a man sitting a couple of feet away. He is long and slim and gray-headed, with a broad, handsome face and thick eyebrows. He looks to be in his early fifties, although he could probably go several years in either direction. He wears a white oxford with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, loose linen pants and brown sandals. His toes curl inward, oddly out of tune with the lean symmetry of his body. He holds a glass of white wine in each hand.

"Here," he says.

I accept, taking the glass by its stem. "Thank you. Now, I suppose your plan would be to get me drunk and then toss me into world's longest river."

"Third, actually." His accent is Australian. "After the Congo and the Nile. Don't worry, it's too risky. There'd be a search of the ship come morning, when your husband reports you missing." His speech is slow, as if he has difficulty forming words, but in his eyes there is none of the dullness of a drunk.



"Maybe they'd think I tossed myself over. I'm sure it's been done." I taste the wine, which is too sweet. Within moments I feel a pleasant light-headedness coming on. "What makes you so sure I'm married?"

"I saw the two of you this afternoon in Shanghai. You bought a scarf before boarding the ship. It was dark green. The woman who sold it to you thought it went well with your eyes."

"You speak Mandarin?"

"I try," he laughs, "but I wouldn't trust my own translation." He scans the river. I study his face in profile--the long line of his jaw, the thick tendons of his neck, a tiny mole riding high on his cheekbone. He turns suddenly, locks eyes with me in that way men do when they know you've been staring.

I look away, clear my throat. "Are you here on business?"

"Pleasure. Sort of."

"Traveling alone?"

"Who's asking?"

"It couldn't be me--I'm a married woman." He is staring at me, his eyes focused somewhere near my mouth. I can't remember the last time I flirted with anyone. It feels good.

"Yes," he says, "I'm on my own." He raises his glass in my direction. "To you, Jenny, and your first trip to China."

I hesitate. "I never told you my name."

"Sorry. This afternoon I heard your husband calling you. He was trying to catch up. You were in the market on Huaihai Road, remember? He shouted your name several times, and finally you stopped and waited for him."

"You were spying on us?"

"You make it sound so sinister. I was just observing. Look, I'll tell you about myself, and then we'll be even. My name is Graham. I'm fifty-three years old. I have no children, no wife, no siblings, no family at all to speak of. I was in the crane safety business for twenty years. I don't eat carrots or squash, and I'm a big fan of sweets of any kind, particularly Key lime pie. I'm rotten at poker but good at backgammon." He takes a long sip of wine. "Now you know more about me than I know about you, which means you've established a power position in our relationship."

I can't help but laugh at Graham's rushed monologue. "You win."

"What do you have there?" he says, eying the tin.

I lie. "Just some postcards."

"You'll have plenty of time for writing. They're predicting rain. Of course, Xinhua is always coming out with exaggerated reports of flooding to drum up support for that awful dam."

The ship jerks, tilting us starboard. I reach out and clutch Graham's arm. The ship rights itself. Embarrassed, I let go, noting the tiny pink marks my fingernails leave on his skin. "How did you know it's my first trip to China?"

"In Shanghai you looked nervous, like you'd just landed on another planet. Let me guess. You're from the Midwest. One of those wheat and corn places."

"Not quite. A small island near New Jersey. You may have heard of it."

"New York City?"

I nod.

"I've always wanted to go." He pours me another glass of wine.

The air smells like rain, mixed with a hint of vinegar. I feel myself relaxing for the first time since Dave and I set out for China. On the plane from JFK to Hong Kong we argued. From Hong Kong to Shanghai we hardly spoke. When I reached over the armrest on the last leg of the flight, hoping for a truce, he pulled his hand away as if he'd been stung. I can't help but wonder if Graham has me pegged. Does he look at me and see a woman trying to piece her marriage back together? Do I give off some vague scent of desperation and neglect that makes me an easy target for men on the prowl? If this were Animal Planet, I'd already be dead or pregnant.

"Earlier," Graham says, "I saw your husband with the captain."

"I'm not surprised. By tomorrow Dave will know everyone on the ship." I picture him standing with his hands in his pockets, chatting up the captain. He would ask about celestial navigation, slowly draw out the story of the captain's maritime career, inquire about the wife and kids. It's one of the things I've always admired about my husband; he can convert strangers to friends within minutes.

Graham settles into his chair as if he plans on staying for a long time. In the sky there are no stars, and only the dimmest suggestion of a moon, the round warmth of it emerging periodically from a mass of slowly moving mist. Low hills make soft silhouettes against the sky. In the darkness, the river looks black and endless.

Graham glances over at my empty glass. "Impressive." He lifts the bottle to pour me another.

My head feels warm and slightly off-center. "I better not. I drink when I'm nervous."

"Do I make you nervous?"

"It's not often I discover a strange man watching me sleep."

"It's a habit, I confess. Most people seem so much friendlier when they're sleeping."

"Did I?"

"Yes. When you woke up you started asking me all sorts of questions, demanding that I account for myself. But when you were sleeping I was free to observe without hassle."

"Spoken like a true voyeur."

"You were completely yourself, because you didn't know to erect a defense against me. Like today in the market. You and Dave were among strangers, and you thought you would never see any of these people again, so you didn't bother to be discreet. I even saw you arguing."

I think back to the afternoon's small battles. There were several, but I can't focus on a single one. Graham stares at me, expectant, as if he's waiting to hear the source of my marital troubles.

"These days, we're always arguing about some silly thing or another. Dave didn't really want to come to China in the first place."

What I don't tell Graham is that Dave and I have been separated for two months, living disconnected lives on opposite sides of Central Park. We'd planned and paid for this trip months before the separation. To his credit, Dave understood how much I needed to make it, to fulfill some unspoken obligation to Amanda Ruth, and I think that's why he agreed, in the end, to come along. As we rode together in the taxi from his place to the airport, two duffle bags squeezed between us on the seat, I secretly hoped that this trip might somehow save our marriage. I thought that if I got him away from New York City, away from our routine, we might stand a chance. I imagined us discovering each another anew in this exotic place, where none of the old rules would apply.

Suddenly Graham stands, moves his chair a few inches closer to mine, and sits down again. "What do you think of me?"

I consider my words carefully. We are two grown adults who know, at least vaguely, the rules. Two adults on a ship in the dark while my husband, who has fallen out of love with me, is sleeping. Everything I say to Graham from this point on is a negotiation. Each word defines the boundaries between us. "I'm not sure yet."

We sit for a while in silence, and I pretend to sleep. At some point, a glass shatters. I open my eyes to find Graham's wineglass lying in pieces by his feet.

"It's my hands," he says, all his cool composure gone. His hands are in his lap, palms up, and he's looking at them as if they belong to someone else. "You probably think I'm drunk." He sweeps the glass shards under his chair with his sandal. "You come out for a quiet evening and here I go breaking things. Do you want to be left alone?"

"It's all right. You're pretty good company."

"What about Dave?"

"Won't even know I'm gone."

"We'll sit here all night, then?"

"It's a deal."

"Good. I don't get much sleep these days anyway."

"We have something in common. I'm an insomniac too."

"Not true. I caught you sleeping."

"Only napping."

"Your eyes were moving," he says. "What were you dreaming about?"

"I can't remember. It was nothing, just a dream."

"Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we shall perhaps find the truth."


"Friedrich Kekule, the German chemist."

In college, I knew a guy who never read entire books, only first chapters. From these he gleaned quotes that he kept in a big red notebook under various headings: nature, romance, fear of death, etc. Once, in a Lower East Side apartment after three martinis, he confessed to me that he memorized these quotes as a way of attracting women. He'd drop them into conversations at parties, in bars, on first dates. His tactic seemed to work; he was rarely without a date. Ever since, whenever a man reels off an interesting quote, I find myself testing him.

"Kekule?" I ask. "Wasn't he the one who said politics is just applied biology?"

"No, you're thinking of Ernst Haeckel. Kekule found the molecular structure of benzene. It came to him in a dream." He talks on about Kekule for a couple of minutes before stopping midsentence. "I suppose I'm a bit of a nerd," he says, blushing.

We fall into an easy silence. Beneath us, the grumble of the engine, and in my bones a dull vibration. Every now and then the ship passes a cluster of lights along the riverbank, or changes course to overtake a barge laden with large rectangular boxes. The lights of passing sampans blink in the dark. One heads straight toward us, and I'm certain the Red Victoria will slice right through it, but at the last minute the tottering boat swerves out of our way.
Michelle Richmond|Author Q&A

About Michelle Richmond

Michelle Richmond - Dream of the Blue Room

Photo © Misty Richmond

Michelle Richmond is the author of The Year of Fog, Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. A native of Mobile, Alabama, Michelle lives with her husband and son in San Francisco, where she is at work on her next novel.

Author Q&A

The Story Behind Dream of the Blue Room

 Dream of the Blue Room began with a classified ad in The New York Times. The year was 1997, and I was living on New York’s Upper West Side. I had just quit my cubicle job at a major public relations firm. Desperate for a paycheck, I answered an ad for an English tutor, and a couple of days later I was being interviewed in a posh apartment in midtown by the president of a Chinese trading company who went by the name of Tony. We sealed the deal on the spot. As I understood it, my job would involve light administrative duties, along with accompanying Tony to restaurants, farmers’ markets, art galleries, design stores—anywhere that he could learn new vocabulary. 

My first day on the job, I assembled a vacuum cleaner in Tony’s apartment. My task: to decode the instructions. Three hours after we began, we stood admiring the partially functioning vacuum cleaner. That’s when Tony hit me with the news: “I go to China next Monday. You go Wednesday.” “China?” I said, trying to hide my shock. “How long?” 

“Maybe two months. Maybe three months,” he said. 

I’d been under the impression that I would be working in the company’s offices in the Empire State Building. Whatever Tony might have said about the impending trip to China during our interview had apparently been lost in translation. That weekend I bought a travel guide, a phrase book, a refurbished laptop, and a comfortable pair of sandals. Two weeks after answering the ad, I was on a plane to Beijing, the computer stashed under the seat in front of me. If I was going to spend three months in China, I figured I might as well make a book out of it. I decided my book would be a memoir— something about a girl from Alabama who goes to China by way of New York and discovers—what? I hadn’t planned that far ahead. 

When I arrived in Beijing, I was met by a black Mercedes with tinted windows. As the driver swerved wildly through crowded streets teeming with bicycles, Tony and I sat awkwardly and silently in the backseat, the fledgling familiarity we had established during our week together in New York having entirely evaporated. An hour later, the car pulled up to a towering apartment building across the street from a shopping mall. Tony accompanied me to the penthouse, where he showed me how to work the TV, the stereo, and the karaoke machine, and promised to return the next day. After he left, I went scavenging in the kitchen. The only thing in the refrigerator was a spoiled carton of soy milk. I didn’t have a single yuan to my name. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. I was hungry and had already eaten all my granola bars on the plane. A couple of hours later, as I tried unsuccessfully for the umpteenth time to place a phone call to my boyfriend back in New York, there was a knock at the door. It was a teenaged boy, very shy, bearing a few bottles of water and a small wad of colorful paper money. I tried to ask him when Tony was coming back and where I might buy food, but he just nodded, said “Thank you,” and left. I took out my laptop, thinking that if I couldn’t call home or feed my growling stomach, at least I could write. But the battery was dead, and my charger didn’t fit into the electrical outlets. So I did what people used to do, long ago, in the dark age of letters: I took out a pen and a sheet of paper. Thus began my adventures in China. 

As it turned out, Tony had very little time to be tutored. He would frequently call on a Tuesday to tell me that he would be traveling until Friday, and I could use the time as I pleased. The freedom suited me. I spent my days walking around the city, eating at roadside stalls, shopping in the flea market behind Tiananmen Square, wandering down ancient streets crowded with centuries-old hutongs. When I needed a break from the constant noise and crowds of the capital, I’d take a taxi to the Forbidden City and find an empty corner within the majestic walls to read. One of the books I read in China was Dream of the Red Chamber, the classic seventeenth-century novel by Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Eventually, I would turn to Hsueh- Chin as the inspiration for the title of my first novel. 

I also took several trips outside the city. One of the most interesting was to Xi’an, where I saw the legendary terra-cotta warriors. On the bus ride into Xi’an from the airport, I met a Chinese geologist who was surprisingly candid about the Three Gorges Dam, the construction of which was then underway. I had been doing some reading about the dam, so I knew the basic facts. Millions of people who lived along the Yangtze would be forced to evacuate their homes to make way for the dam’s reservoir, which would be the largest manmade lake in the world. Hundreds of thousands of ancient artifacts would be destroyed. Thousands of towns and cities would be inundated. According to the geologist, the dam was a disaster waiting to happen; he was certain it would eventually result in catastrophic flooding. Although there was a great deal of antidam sentiment, it wasn’t a subject many were willing to talk about. Despite recent nods to a more open society, speaking out against the communist government was still a very dangerous thing to do in China. 

I found myself writing a lot about the dam during those months, as well as about the people I met during my travels. Upon returning home, however, I realized that my heart wasn’t in the memoir. There was another story I wanted to tell, and it wasn’t about myself. The story I wanted to tell was about Amanda Ruth, an eighteen-year-old Chinese American girl who is mysteriously murdered in a small town in Alabama. As soon as the idea for the story came to me, I knew it would be told by her best friend, who journeys up the Yangtze River more than a decade later to scatter Amanda Ruth’s ashes near her ancestral village. I was interested in racial and sexual prejudice, in the ways we use the concept of difference and the fear of things we do not understand to define ourselves against others. I was interested in the damage this kind of thinking can do. While Amanda Ruth’s early death may make her a tragic character, she is also a courageous character; it was her courage that drew me to her. This is a young woman who defies the constraints her own closed society—living life without apology, and on her own terms. 

While I was in China, I filled notebook upon notebook with observations. A good deal of the material from those notebooks made it into the novel. Several characters are influenced by people I met on my travels, especially Elvis Paris. One of the staff members at my apartment building had business cards bearing that very name, which he had chosen because Elvis Presley was his favorite singer, and his lifelong dream was to go to Paris. An Australian gentleman I met in Guilin was the inspiration for Graham. The real Graham was traveling with his wife, a handsome woman from Dalian, and the two of them provided excellent company on a brief cruise down the Li River. 

But the most vivid character, in my mind, is probably the landscape itself, which made such an unforgettable impression on me. To me, this ancient nation in flux seemed like the ideal backdrop for the story of a woman who is traveling back into her own past. 

Dream of the Blue Room was my first book-length foray into the subject of memory. A massive inundation of water, one of nature’s most powerful forces, threatens to destroy a nation’s collective memory. Since the writing of this novel, the dam has come almost to completion. The Three Gorges as they appear in this book no longer exist. Many of the towns mentioned here are now buried beneath a massive, stagnant lake, their inhabitants eking out an existence far away from the homes where their families lived for generations. The dam threatens the loss of memory on a massive scale. But it may also be the starting point of a new kind of oral history. When the physical things that define us are gone, what are we left with but story? Stories, after all, do not live in things. They live in the words we pass down from one generation to the next. 

Years later, in The Year of Fog, I would return to the theme of memory—its complexities, its power to restore. In No One You Know, I would tackle the idea of story—how narratives, both true and false, define the lives of individuals and of families, and how one woman must rewrite her own narrative twenty years after her sister’s death. Three novels and one short story collection into my life as a writer, I understand something I could not have imagined when I first stepped foot in Beijing twelve years ago: that certain themes would haunt me, would grow and converge over time, and that the big questions about life and the world we live in which perplexed me in my late twenties would follow me into my late thirties, and beyond.

 I keep coming back to a line in Lars Gustafsson’s beautiful book, The Death of a Beekeeper: “We begin again. We never give up.” For me, each novel is a process of beginning again. But each one, in some way, traces back to the beginning, to the first stories I attempted to tell. It is possible that in Dream of the Blue Room, my first novel, one can find the seeds of the books I have written since then, and the ones I have yet to write.



“Vivid and enlightening . . . Richmond is a writer to watch.”—Library Journal 

“Any time a work of fiction raises our sights to higher truths, as this one does, the writer has done her job.” —South Florida Sun-Sentinel

“Intelligent, original, complex.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What causes the rift in Jenny and Dave’s relationship? What is their fundamental difference that causes their marriage to fail? Before they part ways in China, Jenny wonders if all Dave needs is “some slight indication that I’m losing my way, that I won’t make it without him—and that if I can give him this, not just now but forever, he’ll come back to me” (page 232). Could she have saved her marriage in this way? Should she have? 

2. What attracts Jenny to Graham? Graham to Jenny? 

3. Do you believe sexuality is a dichotomy or a spectrum? Do you think a person can love—and be physically attracted to—a person of the same sex but not be gay? 

4. Amanda Ruth embraced her otherness—her race, her lesbianism— at an age when so many young women try to be like everyone else. Was this courage? Rebellion? How was Amanda Ruth able to stand out so gracefully? 

5. Why does Richmond describe the announcements on their boat as “The Voice”? What does it represent? 

6. Place is a recurring theme in Dream of the Blue Room. What about the characters’ origins defined them? How can a person’s geographical origins affect his or her story? 

7. On page 133, Graham explains his decision to end his life before he is incapacitated by ALS: “Imagine—to choose one’s own time and place of death. To make a conscious decision to leave this earth while you’re still intact, still functioning.” What might you do in Graham’s place? Would you stick it out to the end, alive but not living? Or would you choose the time and place of your own death? 

8. On page 159, Jenny explains her love for Dave when she muses that “it is possible to love a person for being sturdy and reliable in a single, impossible moment, for responding with perfect timing and absolute precision to your unspoken needs.” Do you agree with her? Who else in Dream of the Blue Room loves another character for their actions in a single moment? Have you ever experienced this? Is it ever possible to build a lasting relationship on this kind of love? 

9. What does Amanda Ruth’s yellow scarf symbolize? Do you agree with Jenny that she betrayed Amanda Ruth by denying that she had a romantic relationship with her? Why or why not? 10. For many years after Amanda Ruth’s murder, Jenny believed that it was the one defining moment of her life, “that other events would never hold for me any real sense of drama. . . . I have lived my entire adult life with a sense that the timing is all off.” Did other defining moments follow? Have you experienced one of these moments yet in your life? Might there be others? 

11. After days, almost weeks, of insomnia, why is Jenny finally able to sleep in Yeuyang? 

12. The author retains some mystery about Amanda Ruth’s killer for most of the novel. Why? When did you first realize it was her own father? 

13. What is it about Jenny that convinced Graham she could help him die? What is it about her that allowed her to identify her cousin’s body? Kill the rat in her neighbor’s bathtub with no emotion? Do you think she still retains these characteristics when the novel closes? 

14. Consider the drowned river victims whom the cruise staff refuses to acknowledge, the staged funeral procession, Yuk Ming’s fabricated “Chinese experience.” Jenny calls her visit to China “an amusement park version of the country” (page 234). Why might this “amusement park” sensation be amplified in China? Do you think you have ever had an authentic experience of a foreign place? 

15. What is the significance of QiQi the baiji, Jenny’s dream about him, and the baiji’s appearance as she leaves Fengdu? 16. Do you agree with Graham and Jenny that “to be away and adrift, distant and foreign and lost, alone, is to be somehow free” (page 293)? 

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: