The Foremost Good Fortune was recently selected by O, The Oprah Magazine in its top 10 reads for February 2011 and was picked by More Magazine as one of the 12 spring books they’re “buzzing about.” Slate Magazine recently chose it for their Book of the Week in early March.
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"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.

—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review.

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.

—The Washington Post

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.

—Slate Magazine

...[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 San Francisco Chronicle

[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.

—The Telegraph

Conley lived in China from 2007 to 2009, witnessing the buildup to the Olympics, the election of Barack Obama, and the explosion of capitalism against a background of communism and corruption. Her running account of the profound strangeness of both expat existence and contemporary China is fascinating.

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.

—The Boston Globe

[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.


A trailer by Willa Kammerer with photography by Tony Kieffer and Laura Lewis.

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