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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 6/20/2009

Dave Beck

In her memoir, "The Sisters Antipodes," Jane Alison describes what happens to the children in the wake of a complicated family swap. It's about two couples who get divorced in order to exchange spouses. Our book critic Nancy Pearl says it's a gripping memoir marked by writing that is searing in its honesty and pain. Our book critic spoke with KUOW's Dave Beck.

Once there were two families: one Australian, one American. Each family had a mother, a father who worked for his country's foreign service, and two little girls. The older two girls were the same age, while the younger two — one of them Jane Alison, whose memoir this is — shared the same birthday, although Jenny was a year older. In "The Sisters Antipodes" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), Jane describes the events that followed when the adults got divorced in order to exchange spouses: Jane was four and her older sister, Patricia, was seven. In less than a year, it was all over: the divorces and remarriages, the new fathers and the new lives. For Jane, this meant leaving her native Australia and moving to the U.S., always conscious of the fact that there was another family, almost identical, that was living a kind of mirror life to theirs. (One of the other almost uncanny similarities was that both couples had a third child, a boy, born two weeks apart, two years after the marriages.) Although Jane and Patricia got frequent letters from their father (and fabulous birthday presents), they didn't see or talk to him for seven years. (This was, of course, well before the days of Skype, or inexpensive long distance phone service, or even email.) During her difficult, wild adolescence, there was always Jenny's shadow, a few dozen steps ahead of her, the mirror sister who had somehow stolen Jane's father, Jane's grandparents, and even Australia from her. This gripping memoir is marked by writing that is searing in its honesty and pain, but never maudlin or over the top. And the question (never really answered) will haunt readers, as it still haunts Jane is this: Which father decided first to abandon his daughters in favor of a new wife and a new life?

Quite honestly, had I judged Susan Jane Gilman's "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven" (Grand Central, 2009) by either its cover or by its title, I would never have read it. I didn't find either particularly appealing (perhaps it's aimed for a different demographic than I am in.) And if I hadn't decided to start reading it despite my misgivings, I would've missed an engrossing travel narrative/coming–of–age memoir. Like many others who are about to graduate from college, Susan had no real idea what she wanted to do next. Almost on the spur of the moment — the proximate cause being a paper placemat at an IHOP in Providence, Rhode Island that featured "Pancakes of Many Nations" — a slightly drunk Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Claire decide to spend the year after their 1986 graduation from Brown University traveling around the world. They want a real–life experience: No first class hotels, no three star meals, no easy–to–maneuver English–speaking countries, and no travel agent itineraries. They decide to begin their trip in the People's Republic of China, which has just opened its borders to foreign visitors. But right from the moment they start looking for a place to stay in Hong Kong (which is their jumping–off point for entering mainland China), they discover how unprepared they are for the journey they've undertaken. Homesickness is the least of it. As we discover in "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven", little goes as they've planned, although in a sense we're fortunate; because of Susan and Claire's experiences, we get a look at a part of China far, far off the beaten track. And I learned, once again, you can't judge a book by its cover (or, in this case, at least, by its title).

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