This book begins where Chen's extremely well-received second memoir, Colors of the Mountain, published last year, left off. Coming from the small town of Yellow Stone in the southern province of Fujian, 16-year-old Chen moves to early 1980s Beijing to study English at the university. More anecdotally driven than Colors, this book's thumbnail character studies and small moments of triumph and defeat do most of the narrative work: the amazement of the other students at Chen's deep tan from working in the fields; the serious professor who teaches the class the multiple uses of the word "fuck"; a Buddhist monk who surreptitiously loves the theater; a friend who introduces high heels, torn T-shirts and jeans to Beijing. Chen delicately weaves his own personal story of maturation into that of the slow shaking off of the Cultural Revolution; he still faces potentially serious difficulties when he uses Sidney Sheldon along with Shakespeare to teach his students English, or meets a psychoanalyst and a musician who are secretly Christian missionaries, are just two examples. But Chen states from the outset that the point of his studies was to get him to the U.S. While this book isn't as constantly engaging and thoughtful as Colors, by its end, when Chen's visa is granted, readers will already be looking forward to the next installment. (Feb. 9)
Forecast: Colors, which followed Chen's childhood chronicle China's Son, was widely reviewed and continues to sell in paper; a seven-city tour and an NPR campaign should help all three books. Look for major reviews, some that possibly take issue with Chen's version of '80s Beijing, and bestseller numbers. The story of Chen's arrival in the U.S. at 23 "carrying just 30 dollars and a bamboo flute" (as the galley notes) and subsequent full scholarship to Columbia Law School should be the subject of Chen's next book and of the countless interviews this one should generate.