Two college friends decide to circumnavigate the globe in 1986, starting in Communist China, unaware that one is on the brink of mental collapse.
I generally find memoirs to be self-indulgent, solipsistic, and narcissistic. Very rarely do the people with good stories also end up with the writing skills to engage the reader beyond the titillating details that sold the book proposal and turn their personal story into something that has actual resonance, meaning and importance.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven has a great story, but author Susan Jane Gilman has the literary chops to take readers beyond the merely therapeutic, telling what turns out to be a very big story about two very lost girls in one very confusing Communist country.
Plotwise, the book has an “Amazing Race” quality to it. Lots of deprivation, some racing around, squabbling between Susan and “Claire,” her traveling companion. There’s onscreen romance and offscreen sex, and hints of big drama to come on every page. That alone would make it a fun read, but Gilman invests her telling with a strong sense of history and place, as well as psychological perspicuity in her character building. It becomes clear very quickly that her primary goal is to tell a ripping good yarn. Too many memoirists forget this, becoming lost in a form of self-therapy. Gilman discusses her state of mind, but she’s quick to tie her emotional state into bigger questions of American and female identity. She’s not begging me to “relate” to her–she’s asking me to sit back and listen. And then she goes ahead and makes it very worth my while.
I totally want all my friends to read this book so we can talk about it. I was riveted by every page and weeping at the end. I loved it!