The Foremost Good Fortune
by Susan Conley


Knopf, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-59406-8.
Reviewed by Judy Miller
Posted on 04/04/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration

I have a special connection to China, so I was intrigued by the title, cover, and a memoir set in China. But, as I've been told, "Never judge a book by its cover." The Foremost Good Fortune is so much deeper than the picture of the bowl of cheerios and chopsticks. And the memoir is so much more than a story "set in China."

The Foremost Good Fortune is full of layers, similar to the delicate phyllo dough which adds to the texture and connection to it's filling. Conley's story is about coming to grips with being uprooted, about facing her fears, learning to embrace the moments, and how to live with her unexpected medical diagnosis in a unfamiliar country.

Conley and her husband move from the U.S. to China, with their two young children in tow. Conley's husband Tony has been intrigued with Asian culture and language, especially China and Mandarin. He is a man comfortable "in his own skin." Conley portrays herself as more cautious, but determined to make the best of what is put in her path. She arrives in China, completely unfamiliar with the language and culture. She quickly begins to learn Mandarin and building her life in China.

Conley has just become comfortable in China, when something else uproots her—breast cancer. In a sense, Conley begins again—learning the new language of cancer, finding strength within herself, and facing and dealing with her treatment and diagnosis, all the while raising two little guys.

The Foremost Good Fortune is beautifully and well written. Conley gives readers many windows to looks through so that they can understand and fully appreciate China, her experiences and what she is feeling. Conley's weaves her memoir intimately within the rich ancient country and its customs, sharing snippets of daily life in Beijing and excursions into rural China. Towards the end of the book, I felt that Conley had The Foremost Good Fortune to discover and appreciate who she was.

Read an excerpt from this book.


Susan Conley is the cofounder and former executive director of the Telling Room, a writing workshop and literary hub for the region. Her work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, as well as The Paris Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares and other literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel for Knopf and settling back into life in the States. Visit her website.

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