The Dissident, Nell Freudenberger, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, 427 pp
This is her first novel. I liked it much better than her second, The Newlyweds. I see now why she got such glowing reviews her first time out and was chosen as one of Granta Magazine's best young novelists.
The writing is excellent: tight, witty yet serious, with a plot that moves and pulls you despite frequent doses of back story.
Yuan Zhao is a young Chinese artist on a one-year residency in Los Angeles. Because of his past links to radical movements in late 20th century China, he is called "the dissident." For reasons not made clear, he is being hosted by a wealthy Los Angeles family, living in their guest room, and teaching a class at their daughter's private school.
The American family is almost a caricature of upper middle class dysfunction except that each family member is so clearly drawn, especially the self-deluded mother and wife. What impressed me even more was the author's authentic grasp of the sections set in China.
Best of all, as I read along, getting more and more involved, it suddenly dawned on me that for Yuan Zhao something quite fishy was going on. By the time I reached the amusing but happy ending I was amazed by the intricate and sure handed way Freudenberger had led me through a maze I hadn't fully recognized I was in before I knew I might have gotten lost.
(The Dissident is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)