Excerpted from The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley. Copyright © 2011 by Susan Conley. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
One of O, The Oprah Magazine’s 10 Titles to Pick Up Now
“This is a beautiful story of womanhood, motherhood, travel and loss, written by an author of rare and radiant grace.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“You hear about riveting prose, and this is it. . . . This is a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being.” —The Washington Post
“Susan Conley has written a moving and deeply thoughtful memoir about her years in China. . . . This book is for anybody who has felt out of place, whether in a foreign country or a doctor’s office.” —Peter Hessler, author of Oracle Bones
“Conley deftly balances humor, poignancy and a fierce honesty. . . . This is a book of fortitude, of good humor, of a love that is absolute and enduring.” —The Oregonian
“Memoirs, I’ve come to understand, have a particular way of preparing us. We will all find ourselves up against life-threatening illness, and when we do, the masterful passages in this book will come flooding back to us, bringing perspective and comfort with every remembered word.” —Kelly Corrigan, author of The Middle Place
“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. . . . Conley’s ability to describe her challenges honestly, without self-pity, leads you not only to relate to her, but also to admire her.” —Slate, Book of the Week
“A journey of isolation, both physical and cultural. . . . Always fresh and engaging. . . . Conley . . . reveals how friendship buttresses women’s lives.” —The Boston Globe
“The Foremost Good Fortune is a moving and exhilarating ride, as well as a deep meditation on family, belief and mortality. . . . Conley resets the bar for the memoir with her humor, sensitivity, and stunning sentences.” —Lily King, author of Father of the Rain
“Remarkable. . . . In graceful and honest prose, she effectively tells both sides of her tale. She gets us to identify and empathize.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A wonderful account of the sense of dislocation and difficulties—the sheer plunge-in-icy-water shock—that comes with moving a family to China.” —The Telegraph (London)
"Susan Conley's memoir about her family's move to Beijing has a little of everything. It's funny, sweet and charming, but it's also moving and emotional. Conley's diagnosis with breast cancer during their China stay is a difficult obstacle, but the author never loses her wit and grace in the face of the toughest battles, both cultural and health-related. . . . More than just a cancer memoir or a travelogue, The Foremost Good Fortune is a reflection on life, at its best and worst moments." —SheKnows.com
“The Foremost Good Fortune is a treasure: The unique experience of being yanked out of context by moving to China and diagnosed with breast cancer allows Conley, paradoxically, to explore the most universal of women’s experiences—the meaning of our lives, the meaning of motherhood, the meaning of partnership.” —Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter
“The Foremost Good Fortune contains moments both heartwarming and heart-wrenching.” —The Portland Phoenix
“I loved this memoir not only for its humor and humility, but for its gentle weaving of disparate elements—dislocation, illness, motherhood, travel, marriage—into a seamless, irresistible whole. It is beautifully written.” —Monica Wood, author of Any Bitter Thing
“Startling, poignant.” —More
“This is an exquisite memoir, a gripping story from page one that tugs you along with the honest questioning and insightful whispers of a courageous best friend.” —Jeanne Marie Laskas, author of Growing Girls
“Conley’s lovely memoir powerfully reminds us that we draw our strength from the many little wonders of our everyday lives.” —BookPage
“Some books pull you into their orbit, taking you to another world. Susan Conley’s vivid memoir . . . is a case in point.” —The Portland Press Herald
“A story of resilience, told with grace and humor, and with Chinese accents.” —James Fallows, author of Postcards from Tomorrow Square
“Rewardingly perceptive and frank.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“The Foremost Good Fortune is told by an intrepid traveler who has found her voice in a daunting, exhilarating cultural wilderness … and has found it with wisdom and grace and wonder.” —Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip across America with Einstein's Brain
“You wouldn’t expect to see yourself in Susan Conley’s new memoir . . . . But you will. . . . 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.” —Down East magazine
“Irresistible. . . . An increasingly metaphysical narrative, Conley’s ‘travelogue’ aptly describes living under Communism, what Beijing was like as it prepared for the 2008 Olympics, and ultimately, what it means to be a foreigner in a strange place.”—The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
“Far from your typical expat vanity project, The Foremost Good Fortune offers surprising depth and clarity on just what it means to live outside out comfort zones.” — The Beijinger
“Anyone who has ever fallen ill in a foreign country knows how scary that can be. . . . This touching memoir is a study in fortitude and acceptance, an inspiring read with much to say.” —The Missourian
“Offers insightful glimpses into contemporary China as [Conley] warms towards it, capturing the nuances of Beijing’s colorful people and its ancient language and customs amid the country’s unrelenting drive towards modernity.” —Time Out Hong Kong
“Luminous. . . . Conley's writing is at once spare and strong, and her description of having to present an unflappable front to her children while being hit "with a rolling wave of homesickness" pulls the reader into her world like a close friend.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
1. What are some of the toughest adjustments for Susan when she first moves to China? Can you compare any scenes from your life with hers, specifically when you faced similar challenges of adjustment or the experience of feeling out of place?
2. How do Thorne and Aidan cope with culture shock in their individual ways?
3. Discuss Susan’s parenting in these volatile first months of China—which decisions of hers would you say are disasters and which are successes?
4. In some moments, Susan listens very intently to what Thorne and Aidan have to say. In other strategic moments, she climbs into “a room in her head,” shutting off her receptors, where she can “still see” her kids but “just can’t hear them” (p. 17). What are, in Susan’s words, her “secret mother superpowers?”
5. Considering the discussions about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua’s memoir about raising her children according to strict Chinese customs, how did Susan react to Chinese parents’ attitude towards their children’s education?
6. Susan made friends with Chinese women. What did she learn from them about being a woman in China these days?
7. How would you characterize Susan’s reaction to getting cancer? What surprised you about her initial reactions? How did Susan’s experience in the Chinese hospital show cultural differences in medical attention? Throughout the book, what other disparities between Chinese and Western opinions about medicine came up? Did this reveal different cultural practices of health?
8. One of the toughest things Susan faced was talking to her children about the cancer. A therapist told her she had one lie about her cancer to her children and from then on, it had to be the truth. What do you think of that advice?
9. Throughout the book, what does Susan seem to learn about parenthood when she talks to her children about cancer and death?
10. In what different ways does disease affect each person in her family: Her husband, Tony. Her children, Aiden and Thorne…..
11. In the chapter called “Spaceship,” Susan and her mother take Thorne and Aidan to the radiation treatment. Afterwards, Susan says, “I’m still not sure if bringing them in was a mistake.” In your opinion and from what you know about the chapter, was it a mistake or not? Would or wouldn’t you have shown the kids that experience of cancer?
12. Does returning to China help Susan gain insight into her experience of cancer, or does it compound her confusion?
13. Susan often uses China, a land of foreignness, as a metaphor for the way cancer feels like a foreign experience. What other specific metaphors for cancer did you notice in the book, and how did these metaphors help Susan make sense of her experience?
14. In the chapter, “Starter Buddha,” Susan and Tony travel to the Beijing flea market to find a talisman that will “ward of the leftover cancer juju.” Does Susan in this chapter exhibit a changing attitude toward cancer? Do you have any meaningful talismans in your life?
15. Compare Susan’s experiences of China before cancer and after cancer. Did Susan’s encounter with cancer and mortality change her approach to life in China?
16. What are some of your favorite comments made by Thorne and Aidan? Pick a few of them and consider how Thorne and Aidan often unintentionally become like zen teachers. What do you learn from them? How does Susan’s representation of her children change the way you view kids in general?