A novel about secrets, love, and the shining chaos of everyday American life, The Dissident is a remarkable and surprising group portrait, executed with a light, sure hand. Nell Freudenberger, the PEN/Malamud Award-winning author of Lucky Girls, makes her full-length debut with an intricately-woven novel about the enigmatic stranger who disrupts the life of one American family.
Yuan Zhao, a celebrated Chinese performance artist and political dissident, has accepted a one year artist’s residency in Los Angeles. He is to be a Visiting Scholar at the St. Anselm’s School for Girls, teaching advanced art, and hosted by one of the school’s most devoted families: the wealthy if dysfunctional Traverses. But when their guest arrives, the Traverses are preoccupied with their own problems. Cece, devoted mother and contemporary art enthusiast, worries about the recent arrest of her son, Max. Unable to communicate with her husband, Gordon, a psychiatrist distracted by his passion for genealogical research, she turns to Gordon’s wayward brother, Phil. Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old Olivia Travers is just relieved that her classmates seem to be ignoring the weird Chinese art teacher living in her pool house – at least until a brilliant but troublesome new student appears in his class.
The dissident, for his part, is happy to be left alone. His relationship to the 1989 Democracy Movement and his past in a Beijing underground artists’ community together give him reason for not wanting to be scrutinized too carefully. The trouble starts when he and his American hosts begin to see one another with clearer eyes.
Reviewing Lucky Girls, the Seattle Times praised Freudenberger’s “merciless and often hilarious eye for family dynamics, and her equally sharp eye for cultures in collision.” These talents and others are on full display here, as the author captures her characters in their struggles with art, with identity-and with one another. As the New York Times Book Review observed, “Young writers as ambitious-and as good-as Nell Freudenberger give us a reason for hope.”