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Portrait of the artist – ‘Elsey Come Home’

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I’ve been a book reviewer for over of a decade. As such, I have seen a lot of books cross my desk – so many, in fact, that there’s no way that I could ever read them all. Some cuts are easy, while others are genuinely hard decisions.

One such cut I made back in 2011 was Susan Conley’s memoir “The Foremost Good Fortune.” It was one of the hard ones, but I made it. And when I finally revisited the book some years later, I realized that not only was the decision difficult … it was wrong. I promised myself I wouldn’t miss out on another offering from such a talented writer.

Hence, when I received my copy of Conley’s new novel “Elsey Come Home” (Knopf, $25.95), I immediately dug in. And what I got was a beautiful, ethereal piece of writing – a look at the power of family, the nature of creativity and the dynamics of addiction. It’s an exploration of one woman’s psyche, a look both deep and broad into what makes a person tick, packed with emotional resonance and deftly-turned phrases.

Elsey is an American painter living in China. From the outside, her life looks like an idyllic success. She’s established a degree of success, with gallery shows and commissions and five-figure sales. Her Danish husband Lukas is also an expat, a noted producer and performer of electronic dance music. They have two daughters and a lovely home.

But Elsey is struggling. She can’t find the balance that she wants between her painting, her kids and her husband; instead, she turns inward. She worries and drinks, drinks and worries, leaving all aspects of her life to suffer.

One day, Lukas hands her a brochure for a weeklong retreat in the mountains. There’s no stated “or else” ultimatum, but the meaning is clear – if she can’t figure out a way to get herself together, some hard decisions about their family were going to have to be made. And so – she goes, unsure of how (or even if) she wants to get better.

At the yoga retreat, Elsey quickly meets a motley collection of fellow seekers. There are wealthy expats, socialites and executives. There are youngsters searching for meaning. And then there’s Mei – a famous Chinese artist whose work Elsey has long admired.

There in the hills, in seven days packed with yoga poses and sharing of truths, Elsey is left to confront her own ideas about who she is and the path she wants to take. It becomes a question about where the journey – literal and figurative – will lead.

One of the central ideas in “Elsey Come Home” is the recognition of just how difficult it is for people – women in particular – to achieve a satisfactory balance in their lives. The fact that Elsey has to remove herself from her life in order to gain perspective speaks volumes to the pressures that are exerted on us by everyday life.

There’s a richness of place that Conley evokes, a sensual surrounding that transforms and transports. Subtle details are woven together like silken threads, creating a variety of tapestries that are all equally striking regardless of the picture they are intended to present. It’s a good word – “present.” It describes perfectly how you feel when immersed in Conley’s prose – she places you precisely where she wants you to be … and where you need to be.

Elsey herself fascinates. She is an accomplished, talented woman, yet not even her many gifts are able to guarantee her happiness. Her struggles are genuine and resonant. We feel her internal conflict and see how her inability to give herself over to either her work or her family results in feelings of inadequacy in both realms. Watching as those feelings lead to one glass of wine, two glasses, four glasses … it’s both heartbreaking and uncomfortably real.

“Elsey Come Home” is a wonderful read, an insightful bildungsroman that captures one woman’s quest for spiritual satisfaction. It is thoughtful and emotionally charged, a beautiful effort to capture the complexities of striving for a fulfilling and creative life.

I passed on a Susan Conley book once before. This book is an exquisite illustration of precisely why I will never make that mistake again.

Last modified on Thursday, 24 January 2019 18:10

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