A yoga retreat on a mountain in China signals a turning point for an expatriate American painter.
"About a year ago my husband handed me a brochure for a retreat in a nearby mountain village. We were standing in our Beijing kitchen while the girls played make-believe dog at our feet. The brochure was more like a handmade pamphlet—four pieces of white computer paper folded in the middle and stapled three times along the crease." Elsey's husband, Lukas, a Danish-born musician who plays electronic dance music in clubs, knows his wife desperately needs something to get her back on track and can only hope that this retreat will be it. Elsey's not so sure, but she goes anyway, leaving her beloved daughters with their dad and taking along a full cargo of emotional baggage. The conflict between parenting and painting has put an end to what was an art career on the rise and has also led to a dependence on alcohol that is more serious than she has been willing to admit. At the retreat she will learn plank and forward fold, observe a day of silence, and participate in the dreaded Talking Circle, which Elsey sees as a good premise for a skit on Saturday Night Live. Joining her on the mountain is a cast of Chinese nationals and foreigners, all there in hopes of changing their lives. Most significant among them is Mei, half of an internationally famous artist couple, for whom the retreat is an attempt to break from her difficult husband; she becomes something like a friend. As Elsey sorts through the memories of the yoga retreat and the year following, as well as older hurts and losses, Conley's (Paris Was the Place, 2013) slim novel illustrates the power of storytelling as a process for healing.
What entices and endures here is the voice: dreamy, meditative, hypnotic, and very real.