People who looked at this cover and thought that it would be an insightful and sexy look into being a foreigner touring through a China just newly opened to the world will ultimately be disappointed.
Of course, we weren’t expecting startling perceptivity from someone who had previously authored “Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess,” and we realize that “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” is by no means striving to be high literature, but even as one shallow girl’s memoir it fails to please.
A China backpacking trip in 1986 should be a fascinating topic, but Susan Jane Gilman drowns out anything remotely interesting about the journey with brainless dialogue. The memoir’s two heroines, Claire and Susie, are constantly described as “young and brilliant” (and they won’t let you forget: Ivy league), but their conversations seem far from it.
Enjoy the following quotes? “Christ, is he retarded?”; “I swear. The plumbing alone in this country is a human rights violation” and “Okay, not to be an asshole or anything, but this house is smaller than my parents’ Jacuzzi”. We didn’t either.
Unfortunately, this kind of drivel goes on for page after page, interspersed with “sweeties”, nicknames and fits of giggling. As might be deduced from these snatches of dialogue, the two (young and brilliant!) Americans view China with no little amount of xenophobia. Even more tiring than their comments is the way the writer constantly points out how utterly limited the possibilities for Chinese are. (“Most likely she will have one child, followed by a series of forced abortions.”)
Anyone who has actually been to China won’t find the experiences of Claire and Susie very exotic. Cockroaches in Chungking Mansions? Who would have thought? The toilet was a hole in the ground? Unbelievable!
It is only after the first two-thirds of this book that a darker and somewhat more interesting story surfaces. Mental illness enters the scene and China is no longer the theme, just the setting – making the story much more tolerable. The language barriers, the bureaucracy, being a stranger in a strange land transforms from annoying to sinister.
“Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven” won’t tell anyone who’s lived in China anything they didn’t already know about the country. But once the memoir shifts its focus, it becomes at least worth a flip through.
Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman, Grand Central Publishing, will be published on March 24
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