I try not to put a lot of stock into covers or titles when looking for a book to read, however in this case I feel like I should have taken heed that this might not be my favorite book in the world after seeing the cover. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven had been recommended to me and got pretty good reviews when I looked it up on Amazon. I checked it out of the local library and read it. Quickly. It is a travel memoir and I usually love travel memoirs. This one is a little different because it deals with the psychiatric breakdown of Susan Gilman’s travel companion and so a lot of names and descriptions of the characters are changed to protect their identities.
Susan and her traveling partner “Claire” decide to spend a year traveling the world after they graduate from Brown University. Neither have done any exotic travel. Susan comes from a middle class family and Claire comes from a wealthy one. They are what sounds like casual friends prior to the trip but they decide to go and decide to start their travel in China. It is 1986 and China has just opened it’s borders to tourists, although it is heavily monitored.
Susan and Claire travel to China. They immediately are disoriented by the language, the temperature, the food, the smells and just about everything. They take turns having moments of weakness and homesickness while the other pushes to carry on with the trip. During this time Claire writes diligently in her journal and talks of people watching her and spying on her. After a dramatic incident Susan realizes that she is having a psychiatric breakdown and works to get her out of the country as fast as she can.
The story wasn’t really what I expected. There were parts of it that I liked, such as the author talking about the Americans and expatriates traveling in Asia trying to prove how authentic they were by how little they paid for things and how much they roughed it. She points out that you have to be a wealthy person to have the privilege to travel internationally and “rough it.” It was also interesting to hear about China during this time and it definitely took some bravery as well as naivety in order to travel there without any preparation. It is hard for me to identify what I didn’t like about this book but there was just something missing that kept it from meeting my expectations.