Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Book Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

"Hey, let's be Odysseus. Let's be Byron. Let's be Don Quixote, Huck Finn, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one—except with lip gloss."

book coverIn 1986 before home computers and email were commonplace, before even first graders had cell phones stuffed into their backpacks, two smart but naive Ivy League graduates planned a trip around the world, their itinerary inspired by the “Pancakes of Many Nations” paper placemat at the local IHOP. Susan Jane Gilman and “Claire van Houten”—more acquaintances than good friends—would start their adventure in Hong Kong, and from there travel on to China, India, Bali, and Thailand. They would be gone for one year, right about the time when Susie's student loans came due.

But like most pampered Americans who have never traveled outside of their comfort zones, Susie and Claire find themselves immersed in a culture of strange food and unreliable transportation, where a phone call home might take two hours to patch through, and the lack of hot showers, clean sheets, and private toilets have them second-guessing those hasty, hangover-induced vacation plans.

When Claire begins hearing voices and thinks they’re being shadowed by undercover terrorists because her father is a “very important business man,” Susie slowly realizes that Claire is not acting the prima donna but slowly losing touch with reality, and so begins the logistical nightmare of getting her back home.

By chance Susie meets a woman named Sandy in their hotel lobby. Sandy, a proud Canadian who took a hiatus from her nursing career to teach English to the natives, takes on the job of the girls' “fixer," reminding me of Mr. Wolf in Quentin Tarantino ’s Pulp Fiction—“That’s thirty minutes away. I’ll be there in ten.” With Sandy’s pluck and just enough Valium to sedate Claire until they are stateside, Susie just might get out of the country with her own sanity intact.

Though the girls come off as Ugly Americans at times, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a page-turner of a satisfying tale, even for those like me who just think they don't like travelogues.

susan gilman
About the author: Susan Jane Gilman is the author of two other nonfiction books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara. She is also a short story writer, has worked as a journalist, and has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington City Paper, Ms., Real Simple, and Us.She lives in Geneva, Switzerland, with her husband.

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