by Susan Jane Gilman
Quite honestly, had I judged Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven(Grand Central, 2009) by either its cover or title, I would never have read it. I didn’t find either particularly appealing (perhaps it’s aimed for a different demographic than I am in). And if I hadn’t decided to start reading it despite my misgivings, I would’ve missed an engrossing travel narrative/coming–of–age memoir. Like many others who are about to graduate from college, Susan had no real idea what she wanted to do next. Almost on the spur of the moment — the proximate cause being a paper placemat at an IHOP in Providence, Rhode Island that featured “Pancakes of Many Nations” — a slightly drunk Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Claire decide to spend the year after their 1986 graduation from Brown University traveling around the world. They want a real–life experience: No first class hotels, no three star meals, no easy–to–maneuver English–speaking countries, and no travel agent itineraries. They decide to begin their trip in the People’s Republic of China, which has just opened its borders to foreign visitors. But right from the moment they start looking for a place to stay in Hong Kong (which is their jumping–off point for entering mainland China), they discover how unprepared they are for the journey they’ve undertaken. Homesickness is the least of it. As we discover in Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, little goes as they’ve planned, although in a sense we’re fortunate; because of Susan and Claire’s experiences, we get a look at a part of China far, far off the beaten track. And I learned, once again, you can’t judge a book by its cover (or in this case, at least, by its title).