Susan Conley

Reviews for Good Fortune.

  • Newly released in paperback, 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. Susan Conley’s husband, Tony, has had a fascination with China for most of his life. Therefore, when he receives an opportunity to move to China, he is ecstatic. It's a great step forward professionally, and the chance to live in China is one that he can't turn down. But Susan is less optimistic. The Conleys have two young boys they would have to relocate to Beijing, and Susan is unsure of how she will fare in such a different culture, with a non-English speaking majority. She can’t deny Tony this opportunity, so she agrees to the move. Once in China, Susan is overwhelmed. Her children are miserable and aren't able to make friends easily, though they attend an international school. Tony works all the time, leaving Susan to manage the household. Though the family hires the customary maid and cook, Susan feels uncomfortable with having help around the house. And Susan and her boys, of course, miss their home. Nevertheless, Susan maintains a healthy sense of humor and forges ahead with her Chinese adventure, making friends and learning the language to the best of her ability. All of this comes to a quick halt, when Susan discovers a lump in her breast. In just a matter of days, even hours, her entire worldview changes drastically. More than just a cancer memoir or a travelogue, The Foremost Good Fortune is a reflection on life, at its best and worst moments.

  • When she and her family traded their house in Maine for a high-rise apartment in Beijing, Conley wasn’t ready to experience it through the lens of her own cancer diagnosis. A–.

  • This is a beautiful story of womanhood, motherhood, travel and loss, written by an author of rare and radiant grace.

  • “China sat in the rooms of our house like a question,” begins Conley in this luminous memoir of moving her family from Portland, Maine, to Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics. Conley’s husband had accepted a dream job in Beijing, and they had decided to say “yes to all the unknowns that will now rain down on us” including common difficulties faced by many families moving to a new city: a new school for her two young sons, finding new friends, and adjusting to a new apartment all compounded by the intensity of learning a difficult new language and adapting to a new culture. 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. As Conley starts to hit her stride in her adopted city, she discovers lumps in her breast and finds herself on a different kind of journey, which she describes as “an essential aloneness that cancer has woven into my days.” She explains in this engaging memoir that after her treatment in the U.S. was over, she returned to Beijing, where she searched for the perfect Chinese talisman to “ward off the leftover cancer juju” and hoping to help her boys move past their own fears of their mother’s mortality.

  • Conley also touched a nerve that resonated with most women: She wasn't the perfect mother and she readily admitted to needing her own space. She used the metaphor of having a place inside her head where she retreated to when things with her boys got too manic to deal with. The theme continues to resonate through the metaphor of Mandarin and then cancer as a sea in which she is swimming alone.

  • What is most striking about this book is the fact that it defies expectation. It isn’t a homily on China, nor does it go in the other direction, namely the veiled critique into which many an expat memoir descends. Nor is it a chronicle of cancer, with an undertone of, “Why me?” Conley is pragmatic, never self-indulgent, analytical and often unemotional towards her cancer. Her writing style is matter-of-fact… a compelling memoir of a woman–a wife, mother and writer–who happens to move to Beijing and contract the disease. At its root it is a book about family, about change and about adjustment.

  • I’m no China expert and I didn’t want to write a fluffy, light and opinionated foreigner story. The only way I found to do it with humanity was to write it in little frames, person by person. I didn’t come to write a book about what I think about China, but to simply tell human stories. I had my most gratifying moment when I heard from Chinese reporters and readers that the book was resonating with them.

  • An American mother recounts her struggle to adjust to a new life in Beijing—and then faces another challenge, this one medical.

  • You hear about riveting prose, and this is it. The story is nailed down, noisily, in metal. The Foremost Good Fortune is just about as honest a book as you’ll ever read. The trip Conley went on was to a far more complex place that she envisioned. This is a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being.

  • 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. How can you take care of others in the midst of your own mess? When you parent at home, in perfect health, you have a box full of tools, techniques, and tricks at your disposal. In a foreign country, that toolbox is severely limited. Conley’s ability to describe her challenges honestly, without self-pity, leads you not only to relate to her, but also to admire her.

  • “‘China and cancer are both big countries, so there’s a lot to say about each,’ writes Conley in the introduction to her fish-out-of-water memoir The Foremost Good Fortune. Here, she recounts the time she spent with her husband and two boys in Beijing—eating pickled tea eggs, driving along the hutong valley, learning Mandarin—and the startling, poignant discovery of her illness abroad.”

  • ...[Conley’s] remarkable book recalls the time she and her family spent in Beijing a few years ago, having moved from Portland, Maine. It also describes the personal, often strange ordeal that unfolds after doctors there discover a lump in her left breast. "For us, cancer becomes the story within the China story," she writes, in much the same way that the Forbidden City is a part of Beijing, a city within a city. The disease becomes a piece of the larger narrative, but does not dominate her entire experience. As it should not. In graceful and honest prose, she effectively tells both sides of her tale. She gets us to identify and empathize.

  • [The Foremost Good Fortune] chronicles the slow process of adjustment, the battles with the language, the agonising bluntness of children who say what they think; the slow discovery of Beijing’s many joys and secrets; the kindnesses and eccentricities of the Chinese and the eventual evolution of a love-hate relationship that ultimately favours the love side of that equation… But there is a mighty, life-altering sting in the tale of this book. Halfway through Susan gets breast cancer... [and] learns to live with the idea of her own death, to confront the possibility of separation from her beautiful boys and a husband with that most precious of all commodities — energy. This book will win prizes all over the world.

  • Conley lives in a brand-new concrete high rise adjacent to an old neighborhood of “narrow alleyways and one-room stone buildings.” She visits the Bag Lady who runs “the penny candy store of illegal purses’’ and accompanies a disastrous school field trip to an ecological farm with horrifying toilets and “sad-looking geese.” She eats “French finger food” at a “new Chinese fusion place’’ with fur-lined bathrooms, and chicken tendons, feet, and heads at Yummy’s, “China’s version of McDonald’s.” Weekend trips and vacations bring vivid depictions of the Great Wall, a Tibetan farm, and a communist model village. Chinese hospitals are their own foreign land. Whether humorous or serious, these passages are always fresh and engaging. Conley also reveals how friendship buttresses women’s lives. Her accounts of “dating new women in Beijing” over karaoke and shopping are funny and painful. Eventually she finds women with whom she attends “book clubs and brunches and crafts fairs,” but cancer underscores their lack of true intimacy. Two moments of panicked revelation in grocery stores when an acquaintance tells Conley her husband is having an affair, and when she tells a woman she meets at the playground that she has breast cancer, are fleeting confidences met with offers of support that go nowhere. But when Conley returns home for treatment, her friends see her through it, and it is clear that they, almost more than her husband and sons, are what ground her.

  • This book is a unique combination of travel memoir, cancer story, and reflections on motherhood. At one point in the book, a friend gives you a journal to record thoughts about your illness and you put it aside, determined not to write about cancer. Can you tell us what changed your mind and how the book came to life? I set out to China with the intent to write that first book you mention—the travel memoir. I wanted to write a story about my motherhood experience in China and how my boys learned Mandarin and came to some kind of understanding with their new life in Beijing. So I took copious notes and was a variation on the old notion of a scribe—I found pen and paper whenever my kids began asking those big, existential questions that kids ask at ages four and six. The good news for my book project was that my kids began asking even more questions about the universe once they moved to China—questions like how is it that China wakes up twelve hours earlier than everyone in Portland, Maine, where our house was. And quirkier, odder questions like, "Can we stay in China forever, because there's bamboo here?"

  • [Conley’s] compelling and humorous account of the "cultural zeitgeist" in which [her family members] are suddenly immersed draws the reader in immediately. It’s a travelogue, a cultural history, and a memoir of parenting successes and disasters… where Susan must come to grips with not only a foreign culture but also “the haze of cancerland.” Beautifully written and insightful on many levels.

  • …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 [in Beijing]… 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.

  • Some books pull you into their orbit, taking you to another world. Susan Conley’s vivid memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, is a case in point. It chronicles her family’s move in 2007 from Portland to Beijing, China, where her husband, Tony, has accepted a job. It also records Conley’s firsthand encounter with breast cancer in a place where medical treatment leaves much to be desired… The disease and this foreign country have become two sides of the same coin — alien worlds where she feels like an outsider, worst of all, to herself. Ultimately, though, the author's wry outlook saves the day, and prevents cancer from dominating a book whose true center is China. “China has proven to be the greatest road trip,” Conley says, “And the thing about road trips is that they absolve you. Force you to give up control. They allow you to gaze out the window for hours at a time and fiddle with the radio dial and free you of most responsibilities except procuring decent snack food. I don't want this one to end.”

  • The Foremost Good Fortune is most of all a story about growth and family. Susan wrestles with helping her sons navigate the foreign territory that is both China and cancer, territory for which she has no maps, and she transmits the poignancy of these moments with unflinching honesty and, writing mostly in the present tense, an immediacy that captures the poignancy of discreet moments. Other times, it seems to be her boys who are helping her navigate uncharted territory, as when, just prior to her mastectomy, Aidan brings her a drawing filled with clouds and butterflies.. .Alternately touching and humorous, The Foremost Good Fortune is a wonderful memoir of an ordinary family thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

  • However glamorous, an assignment abroad is always challenging, especially if it involves children. And it’s even more so if the country is China — all of which writer Susan Conley vividly evokes in The Foremost Good Fortune as she recalls her family's two-year sojourn there... Conley is keenly aware of how sensitive China’s politics are. A western friend tells her “there are four things you can't talk about in China. They’re called, ‘The three T’s and the One F’ — Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, and Falun Gong.” Her [language] teacher tells her, “The Chinese don't believe in God. We believe in ourselves. We believe in our things.” Conley came to China to write a novel and expand her family‘s horizons; these, she accomplished. But she did not expect to get cancer… And while its occurrence darkens the remaining year [in China], back now in the United States, she observes that though the disease became "her own private China — I've (now) made peace with both countries." The Foremost Good Fortune is… rewardingly perceptive and frank.

  • There’s something irresistible in Conley’s details: her love of dumplings and her need to contemplate life and immortality alongside her family with a flea-market-bought figure of Buddha. 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.

  • Told in bare yet vivid writing… Brutally frank… 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.

  • Conley’s quiet optimism and humour saved the day, and her autobiography offers insightful glimpses into contemporary China as she warms towards it, capturing the nuances of Beijing’s colourful people and its ancient language and customs amid the country’s unrelenting drive towards modernity.

  • The Foremost Good Fortune tells a tale of dealing with bureaucracy, the unnerving experience of bringing a family half way around the world… like a beacon of hope.

  • Near the end of our time in China, we reached a point where we did think, how can we ever go home? What will home mean to us now that we have made our way here, in this most amazing of countries?

  • The trick of a memoir is to take life — which is inherently messy and chaotic — and tame it into something that reads like one, continuous narrative. I found one of the keys to my book when I landed on the metaphor of cancer as a foreign country. Like China, for me cancer became this new place where I didn't speak the language.

  • My diagnosis made the distance between that "real" outside world and the isolated China I was living in seem even more vast. I was forced to try to bridge that gap — to connect the dots — to reach out to the outside world and ask for help from within China.

  • In 2007, Conley packed up her two young sons and moved to Beijing, where her husband had gotten a job. Leaving behind all that was familiar about Portland, ME, and America, she chronicles her struggles with language and culture as well as her nearly surreal battle with breast cancer, discovered while living in China. Humorous, emotionally up-front, and politically challenging, Conley paints cultural landscapes for others who may not get the chance or choose not to live abroad. Plainly, a very good read. I don’t imagine I could relocate as far away as China, but I had an excellent time reading about it.

  • In the end, [Conley] recognizes that “words are what get me up in the morning…  Because the stories of our lives live on. And I would like my story to be about hope. It will also have the word disease in it, but that won’t be the whole story.” Conley’s lovely memoir powerfully reminds us that we draw our strength from the many little wonders of our everyday lives.

  • "Mine your quirks" is one of the many pieces of advice writer and teacher Phillip Lopate offers those attempting to write personal narrative. Whether or not she heard it from this nonfiction guru, Susan Conley does some terrific mining in her new book, The Foremost Good Fortune… Conley deftly balances humor, poignancy and a fierce honesty in a book that’s already enjoying success as an Oprah Magazine selection, and she captures perfectly the distortion of normal family rhythms when the four move to the other side of the planet: the ways they cling to one another, the ways they push apart. Conley is marvelously adept at giving readers just the right doses of her boys’ quirky quotidian habits — (7-year-old Thorne tends to trill little ditties through the house while 5-year-old Aiden dresses in costumes and bombards his parents with clever questions, and both boys turn to Honey Nut Cheerios as the ultimate comfort food) — as well as her own idiosyncratic manner of coping with the pleasures and burdens of living far, far from home. In many ways, Thorne and Aiden are the stars of the book — portrayed with such care that when one of them utters a zinger of a line with startlingly perfect timing, as they both tend to, the words don’t come off as cloying sentimentality but instead a sideways delivery of the truth most needed in the moment.

  • …while The Foremost Good Fortune contains moments both heartwarming and heartwrenching, Conley never strays into maudlin territory. Throughout the book, there is humor and insight mixed with anger and fear. The boys learn dirty words. The family grows used to Chinese customs. Conley and her husband argue. There is always an undercurrent of understanding — or struggling to use — language... In this memoir, Conley achieves on translation of her experiences. And she tells these stories as though she is telling them to a friend — not leaving out the messy parts, but recognizing which ones need to be told.

  • Anyone who has ever fallen ill in a foreign country knows how scary that can be. It’s hard to wade through medical jargon when we're conversing in our own language, but in a foreign country, we can feel incredibly adrift, especially when the suspected diagnosis is breast cancer. A doctor in China tells her not to be concerned, but Conley doesn't settle — she and her family travel to the United States only to hear the dreaded diagnosis. Despite her difficulties, Conley and her family return to China… [where] Conley tries to make peace with her mortality and come to grips with her new reality. This touching memoir is a study in fortitude and acceptance, an inspiring read with much to say.

  • Susan Conley vividly shows how complicated life in China can become for expats. She expected surprises and adjustments when she moved to China with her husband and two little boys, but she never expected that the surprises would include her coping, as a young mother, with breast cancer. Her book is a story of resilience, told with grace and humor, and with Chinese accents.

  • 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.

  • The Foremost Good Fortune is a moving and exhilarating ride, as well as a deep meditation on family, belief and mortality. Conley’s keen eye captures small moments in gorgeous detail that offer a wider perspective on the whole they create. Conley resets the bar for the memoir with her humor, sensitivity, and stunning sentences.

  • Susan Conley’s China is gritty, unforgiving, and magnificently perplexing. How fitting a backdrop for a journey into motherhood—and how perfectly absurd a setting for the harrowing passage through cancer. 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.

  • From its endearing and at times comic tableau of an American family abroad in the new, proliferating China of today’s headlines, to the heartrending news that narrows Conley’s whole world to survival, The Foremost Good Fortune is told by an intrepid traveler who has found her voice in a daunting, exhilarating cultural wilderness…

  • Beautifully written… 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.”

  • [The Foremost Good Fortune] is an almost heartbreakingly human story, made more so when rendered through the eyes of the young boys… It is a charming aspect of the book that the reader is gently pulled into the family dynamic. Ms. Conley’s voice is quiet and warming and her friendship is inviting… The successful memoir, for this reader, artistically renders a confluence of the personal essay and the well-notated diary (Montaigne meets Pepys!). That is to say, the memoir should translate a blend of introspection and observation melded with experience. Not to put too bold a stamp on it, but it should echo Joyce and ‘…go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience.’ The Foremost Good Fortune indeed delivers the reality of experience—to a refreshingly high degree. I am no longer scared of the memoir.

  • “Susan Conley left her home in Portland, Maine with her husband and 2 young boys to live in Beijing. While in Beijing, Susan was to be working on a novel but instead, produced a honest, touching and sometimes humorous portrayal of the four Americans in China on the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympics... The Foremost Good Fortune seems on the surface to be a story of living aboard but on closely examination, it is a story of a family, being a family.”

  • This memoir is about struggle, determination, and acceptance. More importantly, it is about the will to live. As Conley takes us into her daily life, she allows the reader to feel and face the adversity right along with her. This book is a true treasure.

  • ‘Mine your quirks’ is one of the many pieces of advice writer and teacher Phillip Lopate offers those attempting to write personal narrative. Whether or not she heard it from this nonfiction guru, Susan Conley does some terrific mining in her new book, The Foremost Good Fortune, a memoir about her decision to accompany her husband — taking along their two children — to Beijing for a several-year stay.


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Curtis Memorial Library, 6:30 PM

Susan will be reading from Paris Was the Place at this library in Brunswick, ME.