On my first night in Portland, Me., I was supposed to meet Susan Conley for a beer, but at the last minute, she asked whether we could change our plans, and we agreed to meet the next day instead. It’s not that she couldn’t have met, she said. It was just that her husband was away unexpectedly, and it would be best if she could “deal with the wolves.”
The wolves, Conley’s teenage boys, are of college hunting age. Her husband had been called away to China—where his solar technology business often takes him, where he and Conley lived together when the wolves were just pups, and where the bulk of Conley’s sophomore novel, Elsey Come Home (Knopf, Jan. 2019), is set.
The book, Conley’s fourth, is her second set primarily in China, after her 2011 memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune. (Like Elsey Come Home, it received a starred review in PW.) But though both books are rooted in Conley’s own experiences—each features a white, American, female protagonist juggling illness, motherhood, and an artistic occupation while living abroad—Elsey Come Home was a conscious deviation from personal history.
The story is set, principally, at Shashan, a wellness retreat in the mountains near Beijing, where Elsey, a middle-aged painter, has reluctantly agreed to spend a week away from her family at her husband’s request. She’s been struggling in the wake of a recent thyroid surgery—with alcoholism that she denies, with pains in her arm that she’s convinced are cancer (they’re not), with her relationships with her husband and her two daughters. At Shashan, Elsey attempts to save her marriage through yoga, mindfulness, and group therapy among a mixed bag of company, ranging from expatriates to wealthy and prestigious Chinese nationals.
“While I was living in China, I stumbled upon a yoga retreat in the mountains and, upon arrival, I said to myself, ‘Okay, so this is going to be the setting for your next novel,’ ” Conley says. “The mash-up of the local Chinese and expats—that’s about the only autobiographical thing about the novel, that I had really been to this place that fueled my imagination.”
The novel is in first person, and Elsey’s spare, frequently self-deluding introspection gives it the feel of what a Raymond Carver story might have looked like had Carver been a feminist. Conley, now a prose writer, studied poetry at UC San Diego, and that background shows here. By the time she wrote Elsey Come Home, Conley was “utterly interested in pace and distillation and compression,” she says. “I tried to write the most compressed lines I could. I wanted it to be extremely lean and quick, in the way the best lyrical prose poem would be.”
Elsey is deeply flawed but also deeply empathetic. Her struggles, too, are relatable, reflecting the unwieldy expectations placed on contemporary women. After galleys were made available, Conley says, she heard that a number of the young women working at Knopf offices found the novel’s concerns all too familiar.
“I think there’s the same burden on women everywhere,” Conley explains, “to be extraordinary at the workplace and then to be an extraordinary mother.” Or, as Elsey puts it, “to be obsessed with children and obsessed with painting at the same time.”
That tension remains omnipresent throughout the bulk of the book as Elsey remains both artistically blocked and, despite her best intentions, an irresponsible mother. Though her struggles with family are mostly internal—on top of her strained relationship with her husband and daughters, she’s haunted by the childhood death of one of her sisters—there is another tension here, too. In China, Elsey is an outsider, and a friction exists between her fellow expats and Chinese nationals. That, too, Conley says, was inspired by her own experiences.
“A little ripple of tension when I arrived at the retreat was that we had forgotten to check in with the local police, and that was a problem,” Conley says. “That was a big deal, even though this yoga studio had been doing retreats there for years, and it started me thinking about, well, what could happen with the police here? I’d lived in China for years by then, and I had met some dissident artists. I was really interested in seeing if I could get some sort of mash-up where relationships would have to be forged between the nationals and the expats, because that was rare.”
All of this comes to a head late in the book. At Shashan, Elsey meets Mei, a fellow painter, whose paintings are known internationally. Mei is unhappily married to another painter, Leng, whom Elsey describes as “probably, after Ai Weiwei, the most famous artist in China.” That fame came hard-bought. Leng is a former Chinese dissident who was “rehabilitated” after his role as a protester at Tiananmen Square, leaving in him little of the man Mei once loved. When he arrives at a bar where Elsey, Mei, and their fellow retreaters have taken shelter following a botched hike in the rain, he pulls a knife and threatens Mei, demanding she come back to him. Two men are with him, and they kidnap Hunter, an American in Elsey’s party.
Shortly after the infraction, the village’s mayor arrives and makes clear that it is the expats, not Leng and his men, who are no longer welcome there. And finding Hunter proves itself to be a delicate task for a number of reasons. For one, the men who abducted him are “minders” (as Justice, the leader of the retreat, calls them), sent by the Chinese government to accompany Leng. “It is a time,” he adds, “of increased surveillance.”
For a fairly slim novel built around an internally focused central character, Elsey Come Home has remarkable scope, deftly weaving personal pains with political ones. Though not explicitly a #MeToo novel, the compromises women must make as a result of patriarchy—compromises men don’t have to make, Conley noted during our conversations, due at least in part to a lack of domestic expectations—are certainly present in the story. Also present are themes touching on racial tension between the Chinese and foreigners; the “legacy of grief” with which Elsey, still mourning her sister, must reckon; and the complexity of dealing with alcoholism and reintegrating into one’s own life following detoxification.
Conley’s own wide-ranging interests and community-mindedness mirror that scope. She was raised in Maine (as was Elsey, who returns there during the course of the novel) and is a writing-scene mainstay in Portland, where she’s lived for the better part of the past two decades. The community is small, she says, but active, tight-knit, and supportive. She counts fellow Mainers Richard Ford and Richard Russo as friends and encourages me to visit the latter’s daughter’s bookstore, Print, while I’m in town—but not at the expense of a trip to Longfellow’s, Portland’s longtime indie, she’s quick to add.
In 2004, Conley cofounded the Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center situated along the water in Portland’s Old Port neighborhood. A regular patron of the Portland Art Museum, which we toured together, she has, in fact, profiled its owner and curator for a local magazine. Her knowledge of painting is evident in Elsey, but she also collects Chinese pottery, a hobby she picked up while abroad.
In other words, Conley is as broad-minded as her novel, as should be expected. That’s made clear when I ask why she chose China as the novel’s central location, when her love for, and connection with, Maine is so abundantly clear. Her answer is telling: “Because it forces an open-mindedness.”