Elsey Come Home (Conley)

Elsey Come Home 
Susan Conley, 2019 
Knopf Doubleday
256 pp.

A shattering new novel that bravely delves into the darkest corners of addiction, marriage, and motherhood.

When Elsey’s husband, Lukas, hands her a brochure for a weeklong mountain retreat, she knows he is really giving her an ultimatum: Go, or we’re done.

Once a successful painter, Elsey set down roots in China after falling passionately for Lukas, the tall, Danish MC at a warehouse rave in downtown Beijing.

Now, with two young daughters and unable to find a balance between her identities as painter, mother, and, especially, wife, Elsey fills her days worrying, drinking, and descending into desperate unhappiness.

So, brochure in hand, she agrees to go and confront the ghosts of her past.

There, she meets a group of men and women who will forever alter the way she understands herself: from Tasmin, another (much richer) expat, to Hunter, a young man whose courage endangers them all, and, most important, Mei—wife of one of China’s most famous artists and a renowned painter herself—with whom Elsey quickly forges a fierce friendship and whose candidness about her pain helps Elsey understand her own.

But Elsey must risk tearing herself and Lukas further apart when she decides she must return to her childhood home—the center of her deepest pain—before she can find her way back to him.

Written in a voice at once wry, sensual, blunt, and hypnotic, Elsey Come Home is a modern odyssey and a quietly dynamic portrait of contemporary womanhood. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1967 ?
Where—rural Maine, USA
Education—B.A., MIddlebury College; M.F.A., San Diego State University
Currently—lives in Portland, Maine

Susan Conley is the author of two novels—Elsey Come Home (2019) and Paris Was the Place (2013)—as well a memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune (2011). The latter won the Maine Literary Award for memoir.

Born and raised in rural Maine, Conley received her B.A., from Middlebury College and her M.F.A. from San Diego State University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Paris Review, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Maine Arts Commission, and the Massachusetts Arts Council.

Conley spent three years in Beijing with her husband and two sons before moving back to Portland, Maine, where she helped found The Telling Room, a creative writing center serving 4,000 Maine students each year. She still lives in Portland, teaching in the Stonecoast Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Much of Elsey’s narrative is backward looking. Information drifts in slowly.… Learning more about Elsey’s life gradually clarifies its trajectory, but the unhurried pace of the narrative snippets dulls the first quarter of the book because the details on offer do not make clear why Elsey can neither nurture her beloved family nor pick up her artist’s brush.… In the end… this is a thought-provoking novel, often beautifully written.
Wsshington Times

Described as "perfect" by Judy Blume herself, Susan Conley’s new novel follows Elsey, a woman living in Beijing struggling to reconcile her identities as painter, mother, expat, individual, and wife. When the novel opens, Elsey is drinking heavily and descending rapidly into misery. Her husband suggests she take part in a retreat, where she meets a handful of strangers who change her life. It’s a necessary look at the identity crisis women can face when the world forces them into boxes.
Marie Claire

Elsey used to be a recognized painter, but now she’s the wife of expat Danish musician Lukas and the mother of two girls under 10, and she’s tethered to their home in China. As the slim novel opens, she’s depressed and lost and in crisis; at Lukas’ insistence, she leaves the family for a weeklong retreat that will end up transforming her. Even within a few paragraphs of this exploration of motherhood and individuality, Elsey’s voice and emotional turbulence leap off the page.
Huffington Post

Starred review) Conley hits the mark on a story line that feels both high-stakes and fine-tuned. But it’s the raw desperation of Elsey’s inner dialogue that elevates the novel, making for an honest and astute depiction of the human psyche.
Publishers Weekly

An esteemed artist, the disaffected, suddenly hard-drinking Elsey has stopped painting in favor of a desperate attachment to her children, and her adventures in yoga and thereafter are a way of trying to get back to her husband.
Library Journal

A yoga retreat on a mountain in China signals a turning point for an expatriate American painter..…Conley's slim novel illustrates the power of storytelling [in] healing. What entices and endures here is the voice: dreamy, meditative, hypnotic, and very real.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for ELSEY COME HOME … then take off on your own:

1. How would you describe Elsey? Why is her life such a struggle? As the book progresses through flashbacks, what do we come to learn about Elsey's past that continues to haunt her?

2. What makes Elsey decide to attend the retreat? Is it solely to please or assuage Lukas?

3. Once at the retreat, Justice, the leader, tells a story of a Daoist philosopher who dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he could not tell if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Justice tells the group, "This is what I want from you here. To become a butterfly." What does he mean?

4. Follow-up to Question 3: Elsey admits to being puzzled by the butterfly dream and Justice's charge to become a butterfly, but she says, "I just knew I wanted to be like him, calm." Is that part of what Justice means, or perhaps at least a beginning of an inward journey?

5. Elsey seems to mock herself. "You hear it and don’t understand when women say they lost themselves because it seems so overdone," she says at one point, "and there are four hundred million people in China living on a dollar a day, so cry me a river." Is Elsey's self-deprecation, or her sense of guilt, over the magnitude of her problems genuine? Is she right: do her problems pale in comparison to others, especially in China? Is she simply being self-indulgent, complaining about first-world problems? On the other hand, is Elsey being unfair to herself?

6. Elsey says, "I couldn't understand how to be obsessed with my children and obsessed with my painting at the same time. I thought both called for obsession." Parse those two sentences—in terms of Elsey's life goals and in terms of your own. Is obsession necessary for pursuing a career and/or raising a family?

7. The author gives a bird's-eye view of China and its numerous social problems: disappearing activists, kidnapped Hong Kong booksellers, the plight of factory workers, and abortion used as birth control. Were these insights into Chinese society interesting, or did you find them distracting from the main story?

8. Talk about the meaning of the novel's title: Elsey come home. Where is home, what is home—in other words, what is the meaning of home, for Elsey in this book, for you, for anyone?

9. Talk about the way in which the week-long retreat changes Elsey. What insights into her life does she gain? How does her friendship with Mei affect her? What about the other participants? What are their individual roles in this story?

10. What do you see for Elsey in the future?

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