Review: Elsey Come Home
by Susan Conley (Knopf, 2019)
Thank you Elsey, for bringing readers along on this journey. I absolutely love this character-driven novel in so many ways. In Susan Conley’s layered storytelling, I find escape (to contemporary China) and also a return to soul (the meaning of life, the source of artistic creation, a balance of self with duty). Elsey is an expat American living in Beijing. Since the birth of her daughters, Myla and Elizabeth, Elsey’s mostly avoided her own creative life as a painter while muddling her mom-and-wife role. Her husband, Lukas, is often gone tending to his own career. The set up is ripe for change, and how Elsey faces and navigates her choices fuels this first-person narrative.
You hear it and don’t understand when women say they lost themselves, because it seems overdone, and there are four hundred million people in China living on a dollar a day, so cry me a river. There’s a small, fetid canal outside our apartment where a handful of old men from the hutong fish for carp and catfish.
Elsey drives alone to a rural village for a yoga retreat (encouraged by her husband). She carries few expectations but a heavy suitcase of insecurities. “I didn’t like to be with groups of strangers. Who does?” There, Elsey befriends Mei, a dissident artist running from her famous, yet abusive, husband. Elsey also interacts with a cast of quirky characters on retreat and she ventures on a few misadventures and side trips.
During the practice of yoga and silent meditation—both are new to her—Elsey confronts old memories including unresolved childhood grief. She also mulls over inspiration for past and future paintings. There are tangent trails of alcohol addiction and marital tension, which pulse beneath the surface, striking a delicate balance between interior and exterior story lines. Descriptions add to a sense of living on the edge of great change. While the tone of the book is wryly humorous, Conley also excavates serious themes. Elsey’s journey eventually brings her back to her childhood home in Maine, where she recalibrates a relationship with her mother and her daughters. No matter how far she travels, Elsey remains connected with Lukas, both in memory and in real-time communications. I was surprised how this family draws itself into a new way of being. Big issues, no easy answers.
For me, reading Conley’s novel is the next best thing to actually going on retreat. A sensitive and nuanced exploration of what to embrace, what to let go, and how to live with contradiction, uncertainty, and fear. Book clubs will find provocative topics for discussion: pathways of midlife motherhood, marriage, career, addiction, expat life. Highly recommended for fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette or Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State.