Paperbacks: The Dissident, by Nell Freudenberger

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The Independent Culture

Freudenberger's prize-winning short story collection, Lucky Girls, satirised life on the road for a set of affluent American globetrotters.

In The Dissident, her first novel, she reverses the situation, introducing a visitor from the East to one of Southern California's more pampered communities. Chinese performance artist Yuan Zhao has been accepted for a year's artistic residency at an exclusive LA girls' school. Staying with the Travers family, Yuan watches the sitcom of West Coast life unfurl from the privacy of his poolside bedroom. Gordon Travers, a psychiatrist, and his adulterous wife Cece, have little time either for each other or Yuan – a man whose radical past in Beijing's East Village makes him anxious to keep a low profile. It's only aunt Joan, a frequent visitor, who starts to watch the dissident watching them. Freudenberger doesn't skimp in fleshing out her characters' mixed desires. For such a young writer, she captures the crossed wires between husbands and wives, parents and children, natives and foreigners, with subtlety and humour. It's clear from the start that Yuan is not what he seems, and that the Travers's perception of their guest as some kind of repository of "human feng shui" is misguided. Only when the Americans start to understand one another does the meaning behind Yuan's visit become clear.

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