The Magazine

Lost in Transition

An American drama in post-Maoist China.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
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Yet, amidst the stupefying rapidity of China's evolution since Gilman's adventures, a certain species endures: the self-righteous backpacker, intent on adopting a lifestyle of Third World-style deprivation in order to assuage his/her privileged guilt. Anyone who has traveled abroad knows these people: They brag about how little they miss flat-screen televisions, central heating, 7-11s, and bathing. Gilman gives these creatures a refreshing upbraiding, noting that the Chinese people whose lives are so sentimentalized by Western tourists don't "live famished, agrarian lives due to some sort of Eastern spirituality or enlightenment. Give most of the world's population our money and opportunity, and they weren't going slumming at all. They were booking a Club Med vacation in Cancún and drinking a mai tai."

There are many places to find fault with Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. The dialogue feels overly expository and contrived. The main characters address each other as "Sweetie" far too often. The title and the cover--a photograph of a naked woman obscured by a rucksack--seem manipulative, suggesting far more lasciviousness than is actually contained in the book. But the crux of the action--Claire's mental breakdown and the harrowing task of getting her home in one piece--makes for a thrilling read.

Abigail Lavin is a writer in Shanghai.