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The Dissident: A Novel Hardcover – August 15, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Freudenberger fulfills the promise of her 2003 collection of short stories, Lucky Girls, in her expansive first novel. Yuan Zhao, a Chinese performance artist entangled in the subversive community of the Beijing East Village (an artist enclave located in Beijing's "industrial dump"), moves to Los Angeles for an exhibition of his work and to teach studio art to gifted students at the St. Anselm's School for Girls. Upon arrival at the Traverses', his host family, Zhao finds himself in a domestic minefield: Cece Travers, the family matriarch, is having an affair with her brother-in-law, Phil. Meanwhile, her children fumble through adolescence, and her husband, psychiatrist Gordon, phones in his familial obligations. Freudenberger juxtaposes Zhao's early artist days in the East and his unrequited love for the woman he left behind with his solitary life in Los Angeles, where he grows obsessed with a Chinese art student. Under a blanket of cultural misunderstandings and xenophobia, Freudenberger tackles big questions about art: what makes an artist; how artists and writers borrow from each other; and how they appropriate details from the lives of their friends and families. Freudenberger sometimes missteps into humdrum Hollywood satire and uninspired relationship drama, but Zhao is distinctly fresh; it's when describing his journey that Freudenberger's novel takes flight. (Sept.)
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From The New Yorker

his beguiling first novel centers on a Chinese performance artist and former political prisoner, who travels to Los Angeles to accept a teaching fellowship at a prestigious girls' school. His hosts are a well-off family whose matriarch, Cece Travers, is trapped in a loveless marriage with Gordon, a psychiatrist obsessed with tracing his genealogy back to "the crossing ancestor." A large cast of secondary characters includes Gordon's sister Joan, an accomplished but discontented novelist who stays skinny "by worrying," and his charming but irresponsible brother Phil, who is single-mindedly in love with Cece. Freudenberger demonstrates great talent for capturing the subtleties of cross-cultural and intergenerational relationships, as the dissident's struggles with his past and with his art intersect with Cece's unravelling.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco (August 15, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060758716
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060758714
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,693,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I wanted to like this book, but by page 89, I gave up trying.
Judith Marshall
Nell Freudenberger's first novel evokes well the performance art milieu of Beijing, at least from the perspective of an outsider looking in.
A. J. Sutter
Wonderful characterization and interesting setting, situation and plot.
Margaret McCleskey

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Friederike Knabe VINE VOICE on August 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Inspired by Chinese experimental art of the early nineties, Freudenberger builds a story broadly based on some of the members of the Beijing "East Village" experimental artistic community. Primarily told from the perspective of a fictitious member, Yuan Zhao, the narrative moves between the group in China and life in Los Angeles where "Mr. Yuan" experiences a different world as a resident artist, hosted by a wealthy Beverly Hills family.

Interleafed with Zhao's narrative is the story of his host family, the Travers. They are depicted as a rather dysfunctional family of four, living parallel lives with little more than superficial interaction. They appear to have little interest in the "Dissident". Cece, the Travers family's "mother hen", attempts to maintain the facade of a harmonious family. She is Mr. Yuan's main interlocutor, yet, her mind is not focused on her guest but rather on her own emotional hang-ups involving her brother-in-law. Father, son and daughter, while present physically, are mentally elsewhere. Revealing only the bare minimum facts about them, the author doesn't make them come alive as characters and they remain two-dimensional stereotypes. The sister-in-law, an aspiring author, has her own reasons for approaching the "Dissident". She may be closer to discovering some truths about him that escaped the others.

Despite the lack of depth of character development, much space is given to describing the trials and tribulations of the members of the Travers household. The narrative flows quite easily as each short chapter zooms in on one of the main characters. Seeing them all together at a Thanksgiving dinner reveals a plastered over façade. Yuan Zhao appears to be quite disconnected from this reality and retreats increasingly into his own world.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on November 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
There are writers who claim to be more comfortable (and readable) when working in a specific format. Raymond Carver was championed for his quick and dirty yet immensely powerful short stories, while a writer like Orhan Pamuk is known for his captivating and expansive full-length fiction. Then there are those who try their hand at both and find that they are just as adept at creating one as they are at creating the other. With a highly acclaimed collection of short stories (LUCKY GIRLS) under her belt, and this slightly longer than average novel recently published to mostly rave reviews, Nell Freudenberger seems to be one of those versatile authors who can shine in either realm.

THE DISSIDENT is both a multilayered story meant to entertain its audience and a meandering exposé on the very nature of art, truth and perception. As expertly noted by one of its central narrators, Yuan Zhao, while it "might seem to be a story about politics and art and even death, it will touch on those topics in only the most superficial ways." Instead, it is "a story about counterfeiting, and also about the one thing you cannot counterfeit." Right from the beginning, Freudenberger establishes (through Zhao's words) that not everything is what it seems to be and that readers should be aware of this before embarking on their journey.

The novel opens as the man who refers to himself as Yuan Zhao (the "dissident" of the book's title) has just moved to Los Angeles from China to perfect his craft and integrate himself into American culture. He has accepted a teaching position at the exclusive St. Anselm School for Girls in Beverly Hills, where he hopes to instruct fledgling artists on the intricacies of traditionalist Chinese painting.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By algo41 on January 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover
"The Dissident" is a very well written account of the time a Chinese artist spends in the US on a cultural grant, the back story, and an epilog. The back story focuses on a period in his college life when he and his girlfriend were involved with a small community of avant garde artists in a run down section of Beijing. I infer from the author's acknowledgments that this artistic community is based on fact. What I am calling the epilog is intended to make the reader feel good about how things end up, and it does succeed in this. The story is interesting, benefiting from the historical dimension and the discussions about art.

Unfortunately, there is a parallel story in the novel, of the family with which the artist stays. While written well enough, dialogue, pacing and so forth, the story is not very compelling. The mother is a well drawn character, but she is the exception in this parallel story. Much time is spent on her brother-in-law, a self absorbed, dull character who is of little interest, and the lesser characters are even less developed. Had more time been spent on her husband, and why he had become so cold, "The Dissident" might have been a better novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By A. Wilson on September 25, 2009
Format: Kindle Edition
This book tells the story of a mysterious Chinese artist who travels to America with an arts fellowship and is hosted by a wealthy Californian family, the matriarch of which is a brooding blonde with her own secrets to hide. Things don't go exactly as planned...or do they? The characters each have their own uniquely tinged identity crises and the reader's challenge is to find out who is who beneath the patina of first impressions. I liked the book, although the portions of the narrative set in China featuring the "the dissident" and his band of situationists seemed contrived and awkward. The author tries to capture a specific moment in time in China of great inspiration and creation, but the picture lacks genuine sensorial depth and consistency. I never really believed the "dissident" character's narration was genuine, not only because of his allusions to chameleon behavior, but because his experience is so far removed from the author's. The author seems most comfortable delineating urban, domestic America, and perhaps the novel would have had more momentum had it focused - perhaps more succintly - on that world. Toward the end, I found myself skipping over the China-based chapters out of sheer tedium and the fact that much of the expository writing about the Chinese dissident community didn't really seem to forward the narrative or capture my interest. The book also features many different plot lines, and as a reader I never got that feeling of relief when everything feels like it's finally coming together, rather it just seemed to peter out.
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