Reviewed by Sara Hodon
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven: A Memoir
by Susan Jane Gilman
Grand Central Publishing
Hardcover: 320 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0446578929, March 24, 2009
What starts out as a fun and bold post-college adventure for two friends quickly turns into a test of friendship, endurance, and resourcefulness in Susan Jane Gilman’s latest memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Gilman and her college friend, Claire, decide to put off the boring adult life of work and responsibility for a bit and become bona fide world travelers. But why start small? No romantic getaways like Paris or Milan. The obvious choice for a first destination is none other than the People’s Republic of China, which, in 1986, “had been open to independent travelers for about ten minutes,” as Gilman puts it. Armed with little more than a handful of guide books and foreign language dictionaries, a water purifier, and old-fashioned blind determination, the friends prepare themselves for the trip of their lives.
But as with most grand plans, the duo gets more than they bargained for. Though Claire is the one who keeps a journal along the way, Gilman gives an excellent portrayal of their journey. She conveys the feeling of the “stranger in a strange land” throughout the book. At the end, when things take a serious, dangerous twist, it is easy to feel the same levels of frustration, anger, and fear. Gilman speaks for anyone who has ever traveled to a foreign place and instantly had everything comfortable and familiar snatched away. Though intimidated and fearful at first, once Gilman makes it through her first harrowing trip away from home, she finds that China has stirred up feelings of wanderlust. Later she would satisfy her curiosity for foreign culture as a globe-trotting journalist.
The book has a sinister undertone throughout. Because Communism had so recently ended, and China was still a country so far beyond most of the world’s understanding, it would have come as no surprise if something truly bad happened to Susan and Claire. Besides the obvious obstacles—an extreme communication barrier, a culture so completely opposite of Western values and practices, and hoping to not get on your traveling companion’s nerves—these two innocent, naïve college girls were walking in utterly unknown territory. But in the end, mental anguish turns out to be the biggest danger of the trip. They endure governmental red tape, yet more language barriers, and unreliable airplane rides just to make it out alive.
Though Gilman writes with undeniable wit and sharp observations, it would be difficult to call Undress Me hilarious, or even funny, though there are humorous moments. I would, however, call Undress Me gripping, brilliantly written, and absolutely readable.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a part-time freelance writer who resides in Northeast Pennsylvania and is currently at work on her first novel. Reading and writing are her two favorite activities, and she is not shy about recommending a good read to others! Her work has appeared in History, Todayʼs Caregiver, SpecialLiving, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley Collegeʼs Magazine. A proud graduate of Lebanon Valley College, Sara is currently pursuing her Masterʼs degree in English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.