The Foremost Good Fortune: A Memoir by Susan Conley (Knopf, $25.95, 304 pages; Vintage, $15.00, 368 pages)
Susan Conley’s true life tales of the time that she, her husband and her two young sons spent in China begins as a light and somewhat unstructured account. In fact, it starts off as simultaneously flat and herky-jerky and occasionally puzzling. Why, for example, does she tell us about three separate trips made to the Great Wall? Is there some hidden meaning in these events? And why does she become frustrated to find that the most common question asked her by Americans is, Are the Chinese people nice? It seems quite relevant but Conley throws out a harsh-seeming response, “I never know how to answer this question; it seems to be beside the point.”
Fortunately, Conley’s free-flowing narrative gains a very solid footing about a third of the way through. This is when she begins writing of her bouts with breast cancer. It’s serious business – literally life and death – and Conley’s voice turns both authoritative and adult in tone.
“This is the sneaky thing cancer does – it displaces me. I believe it’s ten in the morning on a Tuesday in Boston, but then I’m cast adrift on some roiling swell of mortality.”
Yes, the sneaky and deadly disease known as cancer strikes Conley at the age of 40, and she rushes to secure the necessary medical care in both Beijing and Boston. Conley discovered suspicious lumps in one of her breasts while in China, was assured by a Chinese physician that it was nothing serious; but when her tissue samples were examined she was informed that it was life threatening. Surgery was scheduled within 48 hours. Conley also underwent extensive radiation treatments during her recovery period. All of this turned her into a different person…
“I’m struggling. (My friends) are sincere. It’s good to have them here… (But) I don’t try to laugh with them. If the cancer has already changed me in any way, it’s that I’m more honest. This is a good thing.”
Conley begins to view cancer as an enormous lake in which only those who are cancer-stricken can swim. There are many people in this lake, but it cannot be entered by those who are cancer free. “The thin line between having and not having (cancer) seems malleable sometimes, but for me that line is everything. It separates.”
Like most cancer survivors who write their memoirs, Conley is a fighter. Even medical personnel in China who interact with her comment on her apparent inner strength. And she wants her story to be about more than survival: “I would like my story to be about hope. It will also have the word disease in it, but that won’t be my whole story.”
It is not the entire story, as The Foremost Good Fortune shows us a woman who survives a major battle (perhaps like the Chinese who defended the Great Wall against Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes), gains further strength from her victory and dedicates herself to being a great wife to husband Tony, and a fabulous mother to Aidan and Thorne.
Conley may have struggled with the question of how she contracted her cancer – what was it back there in her past? But her memoir substantiates for us all the point made by Jackson Browne, that sometimes it is easier to change the future than the past.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Note: This review is dedicated to the memory of Hector G. Holguin of Stockton, California. My friend for life.