Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
In Search of the End of the Sidewalk has been slightly neglected for the last few weeks, as I’ve been on home leave, back in Idaho, which was the plan all along. I rarely blog when I am actually on the road, but that doesn’t excuse the horrible abandonment inflicted upon the “Book Musings” section of the blog. It is on my mind with each book I read, but I get so excited to pick up the next book in my pile that I never get the previous review actually written. But, this last week, I read a book that has forced me back into my book reviews, for better or worse. Now that I am back in the book reviewing saddle, expect to see book posts a bit more frequently.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman was the book that reignited my passion for writing about books, but sadly, not because it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Much the opposite. I was excited to read this memoir, which was the book club pick for June’s gathering at the consulate in Chengdu. I knew I wouldn’t still be in the country for the meeting, but the book intrigued me and I didn’t want to be left out. In retrospect, I should have cut my Chengdu book club ties and just walked away.
Based on her travels from Hong Kong to mainland China in the late 1980s, I looked forward to Gilman’s book giving me an earlier glimpse into China, where I have just finished up four years of living. Instead, I got just over 300 pages of whining, complaining and generally horrible behavior by a couple of American young women.
Yes, foreign travel can be frustrating and trying, but Susan and her co-traveler, Claire, spend weeks taking advantage of both their fellow travelers and the locals they meet along the way. Their privileged American upbringing quickly becomes apparent, but throughout the first few chapters I let it slide, thinking the moral of the book was going to be that travel gives the wanderer a new perspective on her blessings and makes one humble and more open to new experiences. If that was where the book was headed, I might have been able to forgive their trespasses, their disloyalty and overall lack of self-awareness. But, that lesson never seemed to come to fruition.
While Claire pirouetted and sashayed her way across the Middle Kingdom, slowly losing her mind, Susan spent her down time wrapped up in either the literal arms of a stranger or blaming Claire for her quickly deteriorating mental state. This breakdown becomes the main storyline of the book (not at all what I expected from a narrative labeled as a travel memoir), but even as the tale draws to an end, I never feel like readers are given an accurate retelling of what really happened. With such a massive upheaval becoming the crux of the story arc, I’d still like to know what caused the chaos. (As a traveler and a huge fan of travel writing, I’ve got my guesses, but the book does nothing to answer these unaddressed questions.)
The only saving grace of this memoir is the writing itself. While occasionally over the top with the number of ballet moves performed on a single page by dearly declining Claire, Gilman does a good job of evoking what a newly opened China would have looked like, smelled like and felt like. The descriptions of everything from communal squatty toilets to the state run hotels rang very true to me and I appreciated her recollection of the minutiae that make a foreign land unique.
Overall, I just could not get on board with Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and am glad I didn’t spend more than the $4 I did to buy it used at Hastings. Without giving too much away in terms of plot, I just can’t forgive these two young ladies for their behavior towards other people. Yes, they were young and naïve when it came to the ways of the world, but that doesn’t excuse them for treating others as merely stepping stones on their pathway, to be literally left behind when they are no longer useful. Only the better than average writing of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven saved Gilman’s memoir from the one-shell ranking, with that barely squeaking it into a rating of: