About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, December 7, 2009

125 - The Dissident

Yikes. Got a little too overambitious, and ran down to the wire with a whole mess of library books right before they were due back. Ergo, even though I finished Nell Freudenberger's The Dissident (Ecco/ HarperCollins, 2006) last night, it's already back in the return bin. No dust jacket excerpts or quotes today.

Sooo ... if I were still rating books, this one would be a solid 3. As this New York Times review puts it, the story has potential, but never quite lives up to it. It tells the story of Yuan Zhao, a Chinese artist who's accepted a year-long fellowship/ residency at an exclusive private girls' school in L.A. His hosts are the wealthy but dysfunctional Traverses: psychiatrist Gordon, who's too obsessed with his pet genealogical research project to pay much heed to his family; his wife Cece, whose volunteer work at school and constant need to nurture (whether it's small stray animals or her typically difficult teenagers) belies a restless emptiness; their daughter Olivia, a dancer who just wants to fit in with the right clique at St. Anselm's; and son Max, by turns depressed and arrogant.

The story is told alternately by Mr. Yuan in the first person, and by an omniscient third-person narrator who focuses mainly on Cece. We learn about the now-vanished artists' enclave in Beijing, dubbed the East Village, where Yuan Zhao's cousin X (so dubbed to avoid political trouble, as he still lives in Beijing) was at the center, while he himself was more bystander than participant. We meet Yuan's old flame Meiling, pregnant by someone else at the time of his departure, for whom he still apparently carries a torch. We catch glimpses of his embarrassingly middle-class childhood, and his English-speaking mother -- both facts he allows both peers and American hosts to remain ignorant of when it adds to his exotic and mystique. We grapple with his sense of unease, his fear of being unmasked as an impostor ... and his troublesome fascination with June Wang, a misfit but exceptionally talented Chinese-American student in his AP art class.

When it comes to Cece, the story is much less satisfying. I found Mr. Yuan's tale a bit confusing at times, but I think that was deliberate: in the beginning, he's as inscrutable to the reader as he is to his California neighbors. The Travers family, though, has a whole bunch of plot points thrown in and then neglected or out and out dropped: Max's budding romance with fellow delinquent Jasmine; Gordon's sister Joan's increasing suspicion about who, exactly, Yuan Zhao is; Olivia's near-invisibility. A decent story, but I expected more in terms of tension or comedy.

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