WHY: “Conley hits the mark on a story line that feels both high-stakes and fine-tuned.
“Probing questions about how to balance motherhood, a career, marriage, and a drinking problem resonate throughout Conley’s excellent novel narrated by an American painter looking back on her past few years in China, which were mostly spent teetering on the verge of a breakdown.
“When Elsey’s Dutch husband, Lukas, suggests she attend a weeklong spiritual retreat, Elsey begrudgingly capitulates to save their crumbling marriage. But the experience isn’t as woo-woo as she expects. Instead, while learning to weather the dreaded ‘Talking Circle’ and enduring the day of silence, she alternates between closing herself off from her emotions and ruminating on her demons, including the death of her younger sister when they were children, and her inability to ‘understand how to be obsessed with her children and obsessed with her painting at the same time.’
“Elsey also befriends Mei, an esteemed painter married to another esteemed painter, whose frankness about feeling trapped in a restrictive country and marriage gives Elsey perspective. Though Elsey continues to falter and obsess over past decisions after returning home, her growing ability to tackle previously insurmountable challenges proves she is slowly learning how to ‘be a different kind of mother. A different kind of wife.’ It’s the raw desperation of Elsey’s inner dialogue that elevates the novel, making for an honest and astute depiction of the human psyche.”
–PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, a boxed and starred review
“Dreamy, meditative, hypnotic, and very real…
Conley’s novel illustrates the power of storytelling as a process for healing.”
About a year ago, my husband handed me a brochure for a retreat in a nearby mountain village. We were standing in our Beijing kitchen while the girls played make-believe dog at our feet. The brochure was more like a handmade pamphlet — four pieces of white computer paper folded in the middle and stapled three times along the crease. There was a grainy photo of a cement terrace on the cover, and a more alarming photo o people sitting in a room with their eyes closed, and text under the photos that explained something called a “day of silence” and yoga and the chance for participants to reinvent themselves. My husband, Lukas, told me these things would make a good week’s vacation for me, and he smiled while I looked at the photos, but it was a distant smile.