It is 1986. Claire and Susie, classmates just graduated from Brown University, are sitting and eating pancakes at IHOP in Providence. They decide, on the spot, to travel around the entire world – starting NOW. Claire is a Van Houten, coming from a wealthy family in CT. Susie is from NYC, at Brown on student loans. She has worked as a waitress to save up the money to travel and her family has no money to give her. Both decide to backpack around the world for one year, sidestepping job decisions and student loan angst. They have no agenda, know no one in Europe, China or Asia and go on a whim.
Their first stop is Hong Kong, enroute to Communist China, just open to Westerners. Neither girl, at 21, know each other very well, or what they will endure on their stay in China. As they arrive in Hong Kong, they realize their homesickness. The hostels and hotels are barbaric. Roaches crawl the walls. The toilets are public troughs. The food is barely edible. And neither girl speaks a word of dialect – Chinese, Mandarin – nothing.
They meet a strange German named Gunter on the sail to China on the Jin Jiang, a cruise boat. He speaks Mandarin and decides to join them.
In China, things spiral downward. This intrepid true story of two young American women in Communist China moves and sighs as Susie and Claire not only have to struggle with a culture totally foreign to them and all Westerners, but also their own realization that spending every day with each other is torture. Susie contracts a cough. Claire goes off every day to “do surveillance” not telling Susie anything. Claire’s realities start to blur: they are being followed by the CIA, the FBI; they will be caught any moment. She hears voices.
The kindness of strangers is all that keeps them on a survival track. Gunter leaves. The two girls fight their isolation and alienation, both within and without.
A tremendous true account of sheer courage and bravado of two young girls, as well as a wonderful panorama of the politics and more of Communist China at the time. The Cold War, the girls’ inability to find nutritious food, their inability to communicate, or even take showers, to stay clean – all add up as the two girls struggle farther and farther into China. As it becomes apparent that Claire is breaking down mentally and Susie cannot save her – and the Chinese don’t want someone mentally ill in their country – Susie commits to getting her friend out – if she can. Claire has no passport, no documentation, nothing – and the situation becomes dire.
I could not put this true novel down, and it is a once in a lifetime read. Absolutely stunning in description, obstacles and the human spirit – and what it can accomplish.
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Book Review by Broad “A” – Ava
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is available for purchase at Amazon.com for $10.07
Thank you to the Hachette Book Group for providing this title for our book review as well as this giveaway. We were in no way paid or compensated for our opinions.
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