by Susan Jane Gilman
Our take: Buy it
There are few phrases that will quite accurately summarize the travel adventure-turned-nightmare that was Susie Gilman’s trip to China in 1986. “Hot damn” is certainly one of them. Expect a wild ride with this one.
Just after China opened its doors to foreign visitors, Susie and her college friend, Claire, embark on a year-long adventure through the People’s Republic and beyond. Armed with big suitcases and even bigger dreams, the girls are fresh out of college, minds brimming with knowledge and excited to take on the world.
Does this remind you of anyone you know?
At first, it’s a cute travel memoir that any Go Girl can immediately identify with. Two young women head out into the big unknown. They laugh over how many dictionaries they end up bringing, and how few changes of clothes. Despite your own ability (or lack thereof) to adapt to fresh places, you sympathize with Susie’s own difficulties coping with her new surroundings. You giggle at Claire’s aversion to seafood, something that is all too common in the area. You step back when Susie gets scarily close to your own hungers for intimacy on the road.
The girls make new friends on the way, while also getting to know themselves and each other. And then they get to know each other a bit too much. And then it just goes crazy. Claire begins to suffer panic attacks and other more serious mental afflictions. Susie loses it in her own way while trying to take care of her. Both suddenly are in over their heads, in a way that I, thankfully, have never identified with.
Yet despite their uniquely bad luck, their characters are very much like us, and this is the thing that keeps us hooked. Whether lost in an unknown area, confused over a heavy language barrier or struck dumb over a simple cultural faux-pas, we all know that uncomfortable feeling that knots up in our stomachs when we’re stripped of our bearings. We’ve all been there to some degree or another. Susie’s memoir will keep you biting your nails and turning pages until the very end, in a constant battle of “do they stay or do they go?”
And when it turns another corner, all you can say is, “hot damn!”