After the 2003 publication of Nell Freudenberger's story collection Lucky Girls, young writers of her generation crafted the term schadenfreudenberger (only partly tongue-in-cheek) to convey the envy they felt toward the writer and her talent. With her debut novel, The Dissident, Freudenberger not only demonstrates that the envy was warranted, but raises the bar for her contemporaries to create a new word worthy of her accomplishment. Not only can she write exceedingly well, she also has a darn good story to tell.
The Dissident focuses on Cece Travers, a Beverly Hills mother of two struggling with the realization she might love her husband's brother, and Yuan Zhao, a controversial performance artist from China. Their two dissimilar worlds collide when the artist comes to stay with the Traverses as an artist-in-residence. Cece is anxious for the welcome distraction a houseguest will provide from her family life. Yuan Zhao is excited by the new experiences before him but haunted by a secret he left behind in China. And both will be forever changed by the events that transpire during the course of the visit.
Freudenberger is impressive both in the breadth of the topics she covers performance art in China's East Village, the Beverly Hills lifestyle, a 12th-century Chinese monk painter, the drama inherent to the female teenager and the meticulous detail and attention she pays to her subjects. When shifting focus from one character to the next, she dives completely and headlong into the story at hand. The result is a vibrant interplay of enthralling characters, such that when each reappears, the effect on the reader is simultaneously one of delighted rediscovery and recognition that this will be good. Throughout the book, Freudenberger explores how much of one's life is art. Or rather, how much of the life we show to the outside world is a creation we construct. If The Dissident is any indication, Freudenberger is a masterpiece.
Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.