Susan Jane Gilman’s “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” is one of Amazon’s Top 100 books of 2009 and I can understand why– except for one teeny tiny little thing that while Amazon and others clearly have no issue overlooking, really sort of ruined the book for me.
First, the basics. This is Gilman’s recounting of a trip to China she took in the 1980’s with a friend from college. Gilman constantly stresses how vastly different China was at the time of this trip– it’s isolation and positively xenophobic attitude being especially emphasized. The story is a good one. This is a crazy whirlwind adventure filled with exotic everything– characters, settings, relationships, languages, and experiences. You can really fly through this book shaking your head at Gilman and her friend’s naivete. You relish in the sense of danger pervasive through the pages. And the entire time, just when things get a little too wild and unbelievable, you remember “This is a memoir. This really happened!” and the magic remains. Until the end.
I have read many a book absolutely ruined with a bad ending but what I experienced when I finished Gilman’s book has been a unique experience for me. The thing about Gilman’s story is that it is not simply her story. As a matter of fact, there is another main character in this book and she is arguably absolutely key to the entire thing. For me then, the story started to take on a very bitter taste when the other main character, Claire, vanishes. Gilman describes the very wealthy Claire being whisked away by her family upon their return from China. This isn’t even where I started to break with the book. It’s later in the afterword when Gilman makes it a point to flesh out some of the minor characters in the story that she also explains what happened to Claire– she has no idea. According to Gilman, she never heard from Claire or her family ever again. A search through Google and alumni directories proved fruitless. And right there, my experience of “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” completely changed.
You see, through the book Gilman is, in my opinion, sort of harsh on Claire. I went with it though figuring this must be something they look back on and laugh over in a sort of “Wow we were really young and dumb weren’t we?” sort of way. But once it set in that Claire had no input in this story, I have to say the tone suddenly seemed sort of bitter and, at times, even resentful. In a sense, I felt that the story is suddenly quite unfair and that Gilman is almost borderline taking advantage of Claire’s situation to tell a story that really isn’t uniquely hers to tell especially because it is Claire’s experience that becomes highly pivotal to Gilman’s experience of China. And so I feel almost duped. I’m not dismissing Gilman’s book as a fraud– I’m sure it isn’t. However, I do feel it is unfair. Gilman concludes the reason she couldn’t find Claire must simply be because Claire does not want to be found. I strongly disagree with that assertion and counter with the fact that perhaps Gilman doesn’t want Claire found. It seems almost as if Gilman needed some sort of closure with what happened in China and wrote this book as a means to achieve that. To some extent, I think she gave herself that feeling and doesn’t want to risk her little bubble popping. They say that in life there is always one side of the story, the other side of the story, and somewhere in the middle is the truth. Where some memoirs or autobiographies make an effort to flesh the truth out as best as they can by involving both sides, this one does not. For most people this is clearly not an issue. But for me, it really ruined what I thought was quite a marvelous tale.