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2.8 out of 5 stars4
2.8 out of 5 stars

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on 11 July 2008
I have just finished reading "the dissident" and I adored it. I read it in one day, despite thinking it would take me a while to read I could not put it down. I became so absorbed in the characters and the plot, wondering what was going to happen in each strand of the story. the book is divided into many short chapters which also makes you want to continue reading, everytime you think about stopping to do something else you decide to read another chapter and then get sucked back into the story.
I found this book to be hugely enjoyable. I think the other reviewer covers the story points pretty well, so all thats left for me to say is give this book a try, it is one of the better books I have read this year. I loved it.
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on 29 November 2008
Freudenberger's first novel tells the story of Chinese performance artist, Yuan Zhao, during his year as visiting professor at a private all-girls high school in Los Angeles. Much of the novel is concerned with the family relations of his affluent and drearily dysfunctional hosts (affairs, denial, eating disorders, weaponry). This is disappointing as his accounts of events in China are by far the novel's most interesting strand. Time seems to be something of a problem for Freudenberger as characters fall into settled routines while still recovering from their jet lag. Pacing too, as it is only after 200 pages that Zhao makes it into the classroom and begins some painting. Early on we are told that he is an expert in counterfeiting, and an awkard sentence on page 5 suggests, possibly unintentionally, that he is a female impersonator. I never did find out as the novel demanded either an abrupt shift in pace as Freudenberger crammed the remaining 11 months into the other half of her novel, or there'd only be another six weeks of trance-like tedium
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on 22 August 2008
If this is the best young American novelist, heaven help the rest of them. This won a Granta award, but really only deserves it for a sumptuous cover. What lies beneath is, frankly, lame.

The book attempts to meld the story of a dissident Chinese artist on a year's secondment to Los Angeles, with the wealthy family who host him. In fact, this is one of the problems - the two stories have no real connection. The family issues could exist independently of the artist's relatively minor travails, and vice-versa. Constant expectations that they will intertwine or - gasp - actually be relevant to each other, are sorely disappointed.

You would expect a first novel to have some faults, perhaps a naivety, but to exude passion for the story. In fact, this book has no passion at all. It reads with all the drama and energy of those airline magazines you have to read on long flights. Freudenberger sure wants you to know she's Googled her research, but she would have better employed the time finding a story she really believed in, so that she could communicate that commitment to us. As it is, the book reads like a bad Paul Auster rip-off, attempting to substitute technical brilliance for a lack of plot. But it lacks technical brilliance.

The American characters, in particular, look like they've wandered off the set of a one-series-and-out teen drama. They are lacking charisma, fascination, or even eclectic quirks. And everyone in the book seems to exist purely as a plot device for every other character. Freudenberger could murder everyone on the last page, and you just wouldn't care. Regrettably, she doesn't. The ending, which the author spends 400 pages previewing, is obvious, poorly handled and almost apologetic.

Ultimately, this book reads like a creative writing exercise by an eloquent but disinterested student. Freudenberger needs to find a really solid idea for a story - something she can believe in and transmit - instead of this sorry excuse, which comes across as a contractual obligation in return for a hefty advance.
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on 25 November 2006
Inspired by Chinese experimental art of the early nineties, Freudenberger builds a story broadly based on some of the members of the Beijing "East Village" experimental artistic community. Primarily told from the perspective of a fictitious member, Yuan Zhao, the narrative moves between the group in China and life in Los Angeles where "Mr. Yuan" experiences a different world as a resident artist, hosted by a wealthy Beverly Hills family.

Interleafed with Zhao's narrative is the story of his host family, the Travers. They are depicted as a rather dysfunctional family of four, living parallel lives with little more than superficial interaction. They appear to have little interest in the "Dissident". Cece, the Travers family's "mother hen", attempts to maintain the facade of a harmonious family. She is Mr. Yuan's main interlocutor, yet, her mind is not focused on her guest but rather on her own emotional hang-ups involving her brother-in-law. Father, son and daughter, while present physically, are mentally elsewhere. Revealing only the bare minimum facts about them, the author doesn't make them come alive as characters and they remain two-dimensional stereotypes. The sister-in-law, an aspiring author, has her own reasons for approaching the "Dissident". She may be closer to discovering some truths about him that escaped the others.

Despite the lack of depth of character development, much space is given to describing the trials and tribulations of the members of the Travers household. The narrative flows quite easily as each short chapter zooms in on one of the main characters. Seeing them all together at a Thanksgiving dinner reveals a plastered over façade. Yuan Zhao appears to be quite disconnected from this reality and retreats increasingly into his own world. From the outset, he has raises questions about his own identity, his background and the quality of his art. Why was he chosen for the prestigious art fellowship? Why, for example, does he, as a modern artist spend his time copying a famous classical Chinese scroll of the 13th century instead of preparing for his grand exhibition? Is he a dissident at all? He feels that he doesn't belong in the role he plays in L.A. Between the flashbacks to Zhao's youth with his participation in the experimental performance scene around his courageous cousin X, and his observations of his American surroundings, it is left to the reader to slowly piece together who Yuan Zhao really is.

Freudenberger creates an animated and engaging picture of life among the artists of Beijing's the East Village. The group had developed a performance style of what could be called living art. The performers engaged in awkward or provocative poses, mostly naked or covered in some organic paste. The aim was to challenge traditional art forms. Audiences were invited, foreign journalists and art scholars were especially interested. So were the police who often arrested the artists right after the show. A performance was itself the artistic piece and with its dismantling the artwork disappeared. Could it be recreated at another time and in another environment? Probably not, unless, of course, a photographer captured the scene. As he did, his own artistic vision of the living sculpture superimposed itself on the original art. This invites the question of who in the end is the artist?

A popular performance was called "Something that is not art". Yuan Zhao introduces this theme in a competition to his art class at a prestigious girls' high school where he volunteers as the guest teacher. The adolescent girls are not easy to deal with and a series of damaging events potentially undermines the teacher. The result of the competition is not what is expected, demonstrating the limitation of imagination of the school authorities as well as most of students.

With "Dissident" Freudenberger has created an intriguing portrait of a representative of the Chinese artist community starting with the early nineties. Here, her characters are alive and realistic. Yuan Zhao, while surprisingly candid in his self analysis, is a captivating complex character. By way of his account of his past the reader is introduced to a fascinating aspect of Chinese society that would normally be out of reach. On the other hand, unfortunately, Freudenberger is not as successful in the characterization of the Travers and the Beverly Hills environment. While her style is easygoing and direct, the reader would have liked more cohesion and integration of loose ends. [Friederike Knabe]
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