Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
By Susan Jane Gilman
320 pages; Grand Central
In 1986 two hyperverbal girls who have just graduated from Brown decide to take off on an around-the-world adventure. Their charming eagerness and naïveté are brilliantly captured in Susan Jane Gilman's Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. The two are yin and yang—Claire is a wealthy New Englander, tall, wispy, entitled, toting Nietzsche; Susie is New York tough, broke, buxom, Jewish, and a fan of astrology. They strive for authenticity: no hotel chains, no predigested itineraries. First stop is Hong Kong, then straight to the People's Republic of China (pre–Tiananmen Square and pre-9/11). Culture shocks hit the minute they step off the plane, but something much worse is rocking Claire's foundation—she's coming undone, descending into schizophrenia. As they travel deeper into the country, we grasp before Susie does that Claire is not just spoiled and moody. Others see the warning signs, too ("Your friend has some real problems"), but Susie writes it off as melodrama until they're in so much trouble they have to flee for their lives. This is riveting stuff; part coming-of-age story, part travel journal, part political thriller, and completely unputdownable.