Why is it I can never do my favorite books justice when it comes to reviews? I've been telling everyone to read this book about a young woman teaching ESL after having left Columbia University for St. Luke's psych ward for treatment for bipolar disorder. She somewhat inexplicably falls in love with one of her students, a Chinese dissident. The story is told half in Morningside Heights just post-Tiananmen and St. Luke's and half in Beijing at the turn of the 21st century. I loved reading it, but why? The writing is really good. Want some quotations?
Pouring out your dark secrets to a professional has some of the same allure as having an emotional or online affair. The space between you and the doctor fills with information, and in the flash of your first confession (if it's true), you're cheating on the people you're talking about, backspacing your lovers into ghosts as soon as your bond with the shrink exceeds your intimacy with them. The doctor becomes your confidant and boyfriend, the new one with whom you analyze and disparage the old.
Even though that hasn't been my experience with psychotherapy, it seems true, and frightening the way DeWoskin writes it. She does a great job with bipolar, with a respect for the allure of the mania, and the value of even the breakdown in the protagonist's life. It never occurred to me in the book that she could be an unreliable narrator, and I don't think she was meant to be.
The minute my father left us, my mother and I became colleagues in the office of our house.
The father leaving happened when Aysha was about 18, if I remember correctly, and I can totally see her relationship with her mother happening like that. Even so, Aysha and mom Naomi are warm and loving, mutually dependent the way some mother and daughters are. The only story element I have any difficulty with is Aysha's relationship with her father. I won't spoiler it for you, but I found the challenge of it unnecessary. Maybe DeWoskin felt she needed it to explain Aysha's attraction to Da Ge and later her filial relationship with Da Ge's father.
Most of my girlfriends, including the original Julia, are so preoccupied with whether people like them that they forget to consider their own preferences. This seems especially true in their relationships with guys. I may have been certifiable, but I always cared whether I liked a guy more than whether he liked me.
You've got to love a girl narrator with that much clarity. Would that I had it in my 20s! (And my 30s...)
Two kids stomped across the snow to a nearby playground, craning back to see their footprints under the streetlights. When one of them tipped her head back and opened her mouth, I wondered if she thought each flake she ate could never exist again. That she was gobbling up the sky. If so, she was wrong. Even snowflakes repeat. Maybe they vary on an atomic level, but it's a myth that no two look the same, just like the wrongheaded truism everyone loves about the Great Wall being visible from outer space. You can't actually see it at all.
That's a great evocation of depression, right? the feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and insignificance.
I love this next one because it could have taken place between my college roommate and me, and I assume lots of best friend dyads have arrangements like it:
"Remember how you asked if I was pregnant?"
"Time for the test," I said.
"My treat!" she said.
Julia and I had a long-standing arrangement. Whichever one of us thought she was pregnant did not have to suffer the dual indignity of buying and taking the pregnancy test. The nonpregnant witness supplied the test and kept the potential mother-to-be company. This was no exception. Julia arrived twenty-seven minutes later. "You went to Love Drug?" I asked.
"You know it," she said.
"Did the cute Hispanic guy sell you this?"
"Of course," she said. "I don't mind taking the slut wrap for you."
The downside: another empty cat report. I think this is three books in a row. I'm going to have to vet my reading material more carefully, I'm afraid, or excellent writers like DeWoskin are going to have to stop dissing the felines!
PS Note to Rachel DeWoskin and Overlook Press, if I went overboard with the quotations, let me know.