In Susan Conley’s debut memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, she and her husband and their two young sons say goodbye to their friends, family and house in Portland, Maine, for a two-year stint in a high rise apartment in Beijing, “where they’re meant to grow as a family in that way you hear Americans do when they head east… to eat jiaozi and baozi and brown, pickled tea eggs and drive the crooked hutong alleys with screaming taxi drivers.” But Susan can’t predict just how much their lives will change.
The writer Jeanne-Marie Laskas of GQ Magazine calls the China we see in The Foremost Good Fortune, “gritty, unforgiving, and magnificently perplexing…how fitting a backdrop for a journey into motherhood.” Susan encounters a series of firsts in Beijing: how to buy apples at a Chinese mega-market; whether or not to bribe her little boys to ride the Beijing school bus; how to respond to invites to mysterious “Sweater Parties”; tracking down the faux-purse empire of the infamous Bag Lady; and getting stuck in a high-rise elevator, unable to call for help in Mandarin.
And there’s much occasion for joy: road trips to the Great Wall, bartering for a Buddha head at the local, raucous flea market, lighting fireworks in the streets for Chinese New Year and feasting on the world’s best dumplings in back-alley restaurants.
Then Susan learns she has breast cancer, and it’s her own body in which she feels a stranger. Peggy Orenstein of the New York Times Magazine calls The Foremost Good Fortune “a treasure …one that explores the meaning of our lives, the meaning of motherhood, the meaning of partnership.”
It’s a wry and poignant memoir full of insight into the trickiest questions—how do you talk to children about death? When is it okay to lie? In the end The Foremost Good Fortune is also a celebration of family and a candid exploration of mortality and belonging.