Alfred A. Knopf, 239 pages, $25.95
As detailed in her 2011 memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, after Susan Conley moved from Maine to Beijing with her husband and sons, and before she had the chance to adjust to life in her new environment, she was diagnosed with cancer. In her new novel, Elsey Come Home, Conley uses those same experiences as the foundation for the fictionalized treatment of a similar story.
Elsey, a painter, lives in a Beijing high-rise with her husband and two daughters. Her ability to navigate the complexities of marriage, motherhood, and art-making flounders following her thyroid surgery. Drinking becomes a crucial refuge for her during her recovery — to the detriment of her relationships with her family members. Her husband, Lukas, in a fit of kindly desperation, sends her to a weeklong yoga retreat in a nearby mountain village. She doesn’t want to go, but she understands the getaway to be an ultimatum. Either Elsey stops drinking and finds her way, mentally, back to her family, or her marriage will be over. The first-person novel, which has a choppy, diaristic feel, tells the story of that week, the people she meets, and why it was crucial for her to attend — the reasons for which turn out to be more profound, even, than saving her marriage.
“I’d certainly drunk before my surgery, but never with intention,” Conley writes. “And now I thought I might be sicker than the doctors had said, and I was too in a hurry to return to my private conversation with the world about this. It sounds odd. My fear. I was slowly getting better but I couldn’t stop the worries, and I thought it was a secret how afraid I’d gotten.”
Elsey does not practice yoga, so she worries that she won’t be able to keep up. She is also concerned because she has been having pain in her arm since her surgery. She doesn’t want to have more medical issues that will create worry for her family. Over time, she reveals to the reader that when she was a teenager, one of her sisters died of an aggressive cancer. Her grief around this has been sealed, and she eventually comes to realize that her inability and unwillingness to deeply miss her sister has affected every part of her life. At the retreat, she is required to participate in a sharing circle with the other attendees to talk about why they have come and what they hope to get out of their time there. This is more difficult for Elsey than the yoga.
One of the workshop participants, Mei, is also an artist — and famous enough that Elsey is starstruck and excited to become her friend. Like Elsey, Mei is enigmatic and difficult to know. Elsey admires her painting practice as well as her marriage to an even more famous artist named Leng. But Mei is unhappy in her relationship, as well as in her struggle under the oppressive Chinese political regime, where opinions are censored and those who express them are often punished.
The novel’s subplot about Lei and Meng lends a sense of intrigue and renders some portions into a quasi-thriller. Though this is somewhat a distraction from the main story, it evokes the mystifying elements of culture shock that one must experience when traveling or living in a foreign country, but might not really understand. These portions of the novel function symbolically, creating a dialogue between two types of marriages. Mei and Ling’s is filled with fame, personal accomplishment, and power imbalance, while Elsey and Lukas have a troubled yet gentle, egalitarian relationship.
Elsey Come Home is an alcoholic’s redemption narrative. Elsey is a believable character who has to learn that life has moments of stasis and moments of upheaval. The novel introduces more characters than it is really possible to know or keep track of, which certainly mirrors reality. Elsey can’t come to care about every person she meets at the yoga retreat, but the participants’ names and stories are important for the week that she is there, and Mei remains a critical figure in her life.
What rises from the muck of Elsey’s drinking — and her path to sobriety — is her family. She has always loved her daughters but must learn to understand them as children rather than as alien beings who are in constant need of attention and feedback. She has to find ways to truly open up to her husband and make sure he is listening — and to pay more attention to him when he is hurting, rather than assuming his silences are a reflection of his feelings for her. She must also reconnect with her mother and sister. All three women have left one another alone in their old, unfinished mourning, finding ways to distance themselves that include geography, religion, and living in the past. They have hardened themselves within three separate versions of grief and memory. Only by reconciling on their home turf of Maine can they begin to see how they need pieces of each other to make themselves whole.
There isn’t much space in Elsey’s mind for the gulf between life and death. Illness is terrifying to her. When one of her daughters suffers an unexpected but typical childhood medical emergency, she must find within her the wherewithal to sit with uncertainty while comforting herself and others — and without taking a drink.
In recasting her personal experience as fiction, Conley shows the numerous stages of illness, the potential emotions that accompany them, and how each stage moves into the next within a book that is not exactly lighthearted but also does not carry the weight of a nonfiction treatise. First, there is the reality of illness, then the treatment of it, and then the road to recovery and all the choices one must make to get there. Throughout, there is all-consuming fear. Are you going to drink your way out of terror, or breathe into it in a yoga class? Can you ever be the same person after pieces of you are removed?