Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, a travel memoir by Susan Jane Gilman, surprised and impressed me. I have read plenty of travel memoirs but this one was especially captivating.
The book starts out innocently enough. Two recent college graduates who are casual friends decide to take a trip around the world starting in China, (which during the time period, 1986, had only recently opened up to independent travelers.)
The travel mates are opposites in many ways. Susie, the author, is Jewish, liberal, and grew up in a government subsidized housing project in New York. Her friend Claire is wealthy, Republican and comes off as prudish and spoiled.
It would be easy to put the two young women in these easily defined categories and leave it at that, but there is more to the story.
After the first few chapters I almost abandoned this book. It just wasn’t grabbing me and seemed too self absorbed. (It is a memoir though!) After a few more chapters I became more engaged but then in Chapter Seven, Susie and Claire do something that stabbed me in the heart. It was almost too unforgivable to continue. I don’t want to give away any of the book so you’ll just have to trust me that what they did was really heinous, (or you’ll have to read the book yourself to see exactly what I mean.)
I set the book down for a couple days because I was kind of angry at Susie and Claire. I didn’t know if I cared to hear the rest of their story. I don’t know why, but I picked up the book and started reading it again. I still feel a prick of sadness when I think about Chapter Seven, but the book was worth finishing.
It is difficult to explain without giving away what happens, but the book takes a very unexpected turn and becomes more of a very unpredictable thriller than travel memoir. I absolutely could not put the book down for over 5 hours and finished reading it at 3 in the morning.
If you pick this one up, stick it out and you’ll be rewarded.