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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Dissident

Nell Freudenberger

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To purchase The Dissident

Title: The Dissident
Author: Nell Freudenberger
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 427 pages
Availability: The Dissident - US
The Dissident - UK
The Dissident - Canada
The Dissident - India
Le dissident chinois - France

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Our Assessment:

B : breezy read, decent bits, but disappoints in its larger ambitions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 12/9/2006 Marjorie Kehe
Entertainment Weekly B 11/8/2006 Karen Valby
Financial Times . 23/2/2007 Rose Jacobs
The Guardian . 17/3/2007 Alfred Hickling
The Independent . 23/3/2007 Mary Flanagan
Independent on Sunday . 25/3/2007 Scarlett Thomas
London Rev. of Books . 8/2/2007 Joanna Biggs
The LA Times . 13/8/2006 Susan Kandel
The NY Observer . 28/8/2006 Jon Baskin
The NY Rev. of Books . 19/10/2006 Jennifer Schuessler
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/9/2006 A.O.Scott
The New Yorker . 21/8/2006 .
The Observer . 29/4/2007 Natasha Lehrer
Salon A 29/8/2006 Andrew O'Hehir
San Francisco Chronicle . 13/8/2006 Elizabeth Rosner
The Times A+ 10/3/2007 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 16/3/2007 Sarah Churchwell
USA Today A 21/8/2006 Elysa Gardner
The Village Voice . 11/8/2006 Hua Hsu
Wall St. Journal . 12/8/2006 Tara Gallagher
The Washington Post . 7/11/2006 Han Ong

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, most disappointed by aspects of it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Freudenberger is a sly stylist with an eye for the pretensions of the cultured. (...) One of Freudenberger's gifts is creating characters who live and breathe and amuse. Even the novel's most minor characters are served up in deliciously observed detail (.....) For all its skill, in the end The Dissident never quite delivers the punch it first seems to promise. But it certainly does entertain, and, beyond that, it requires us to ask ourselves some interesting questions about the nature of the creative process" - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Her ambition may have gotten in the way of her art, but what a treat to see a young writer taking risks." - Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Freudenberger writes as convincingly from Yuan Zhaoís perspective as Ceceís. But her depiction of these two main characters is not entirely satisfying. Their motivations are too often mysterious, and even physical descriptions are at times vague. The dissidentís unfathomable character is an important part of the plot; Ceceís less so. (...) Freudenberger is willing to be more complicated and less satisfying than her readers might hope -- a strategy that worked well in her collection of short stories, Lucky Girls. But in a novel, unexamined motives and truncated character descriptions can leave you wanting more. Still, much of her writing is dizzyingly, delightfully specific." - Rose Jacobs, Financial Times

  • "Freudenberger (...) has travelled widely in Asia and provides a highly credible account of the dreamers, agitators and hangers-on of the Beijing underground scene. But she is most comfortable on home ground, offering an assured if slightly conventional tale of adultery and ennui among LA's pool-owning classes. (...) (A) bold, absorbing debut whose confident thematic combination of emotional and artistic counterfeit suggests that Freudenberger is most certainly the genuine article." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Freudenberger's writing is appealingly fluid and open, with a striking consistency of tone. Her book's glossy veneer and smoothly engineered construction put me in mind of a luxury automobile. She raises interesting questions about creation, authenticity and "this business of pretending". But her answers, though emotionally reassuring, are intellectually unsatisfying. (...) All is gentle irony and good taste. As a result, the novel often seems bloodless, its own facility steering it sweetly towards the vanilla." - Mary Flanagan, The Independent

  • "The novel, which has just been longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize, is mostly narrated in an overindulgent third-person voice, where all the characters' motivations and feelings are neatly labelled with adjectives and abstract nouns. This voice is interspersed with a first-person narration from the dissident himself, who tells a well-paced, non-linear account of his past in China, and his present in America. Both these narrations are problematic. (...) Elsewhere, Freudenberger is able to capture something more authentic, and her writing can be very good (...). But more often it is weak and imprecise." - Scarlett Thomas, Independent on Sunday

  • "It has its strengths: Cece Travers, set pieces that are both funny and moving, some very nice writing. But the elegant reserve and slow unfolding of the short stories isnít so evident in the novel. It is as if Freudenberger felt she couldnít trust the reader to remember the hard-working details in a book that will be put down and picked up over several sittings." - Joanna Biggs, London Review of Books

  • "That Freudenberger ties up so many disparate narrative strands is a testament to careful planning, to be sure. But it also suggests a certain timidity, which plays out not only in her adherence to the conventions of plotting but also in her propensity for stock situations. (...) This is not to say that Freudenberger is not good at set pieces (.....) But at times the book feels dangerously like a collection of such pieces, each orchestrated to underscore one of the larger themes." - Susan Kandel, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It was Ms. Freudenbergerís superb ear for family dynamics, rather than her unpretentious travel writing, that allowed readers of Lucky Girls such bracing access to the emotional lives of her characters. How perplexing, then, that in Ms. Freudenbergerís debut novel, The Dissident, her ear seems to have failed her. The novel, though concerned with themes similar to those of her previous work, indulges in stock reflections on cultural misunderstanding and generic domestic melodrama." - Jon Baskin, The New York Observer

  • "Freudenberger has made the brave leap from writing what you know to writing what you want to know but can really only imagine. And if the novel isn't entirely successful, it's a testament to the difficulties of the kind of translation attempted here." - Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Review of Books

  • "Alternating between third-person omniscience and the first-person reminiscence of a Chinese artist named Yuan Zhao, Freudenberger arranges a piquant sonata of general (you might say global) misunderstanding. (...) Quite a bit happens in the book: at times subplots seem to shoot out in all directions. But somehow neither full comic momentum nor dramatic density is achieved, and the delicate thematic counterpoint that would have linked Yuanís story with Ceceís is missing. Instead, The Dissident has a random, hectic rhythm. Like an eager and generous dinner-party hostess, Freudenberger assembles a vivid assortment of interesting people and then isnít quite sure what to do with them. As a result, the novelís focus blurs and drifts." - A.O.Scott, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Freudenberger demonstrates great talent for capturing the subtleties of cross-cultural and intergenerational relationships, as the dissidentís struggles with his past and with his art intersect with Ceceís unravelling." - The New Yorker

  • "Freudenberger doesn't succeed in keeping up the intense energy that fires the best scenes in the novel. In some places, the pace slows to an almost lethargic rate, as though the Los Angeles perma-summer has soaked into the very pages of the book. The most significant problem is that Yuan Zhao's voice, which narrates of all the Beijing episodes, rings hollow. Though what he tells of is extraordinary, he fails to come alive. An unexpectedly happy-ever-after ending feels tacked on as a means to tie up loose ends, paradoxically leaving the abstract questions that pepper the story -- questions of counterfeiting and copying, of authorship and authenticity and identity -- finally unaddressed. This is not to detract from Freudenberger's achievement." - Natasha Lehrer, The Observer

  • "(T)he essentially mysterious nature of Freudenberger's characters, and the allure of their interlocking but isolated personal histories, goes well beyond whether they are who they claim to be, or whether their entire family life is built on duplicity and hypocrisy. The Dissident is an admirably ambitious novel, with its colliding clusters of characters, its complicated chronology and its three narrative voices (by my count), and Freudenberger handles its challenges with few missteps." - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

  • "The Dissident offers readers a profusion of reflections and insights that will linger long after the book has been read. Unfortunately, there is also a clutter of derivative images that prove distracting and less than engaging, "types" who remind us that original artistry is not an easy art to master." - Elizabeth Rosner, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(T)here is an incandescent talent at work here, a sensibility that can devise a rich plot, people it with not just believable but developing characters, and animate the whole thing with an intellectual and moral energy that never shies from asking the big questions. (...) Freudenbergerís novel unfolds into that rare thing, a work of poetics itself, a meditation on the nature of representation in art. The fact that she does it with such wit and compassion, such generosity of mind and heart, is miraculous." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "There is no shortage of plots here; more than ten characters vie for the reader's attention and the narrative space in this ambitious, promising but unfulfilled novel. Unsurprisingly, most of the embryonic plots simply abort; only Cece's and Yuan Zhao's evolve fully. One strand concludes realistically, achieving closure without resolution; the other is granted an improbably happy ending, at once trite and unearned. In the end this novel of impersonation has something of a split identity." - Sarah Churchwell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "But what makes this first novel so impressive, and so richly entertaining and moving, is the range and complexity of its individual characters. Freudenberger draws them with a level of sophistication and compassion that can't be attributed merely to her extensive travel or native precociousness. (...) Even if you don't recognize a familiar spirit amid this eclectic bunch -- though chances are, you will -- Freudenberger's brisk, buoyant humanism will make you feel at home in the world." - Elysa Gardner, USA Today

  • "(A)s a sketch of human folly set amid a similar kind of collision, The Dissident is a charming, breezy read: Yuan's idiom-heavy speech and the clipped, almost-racist things people say in reply testify to Freudenberger's skill at shading in these eclectic situations. But her characters, while inviting, rarely feel complicated enough to respond to her story's delicately layered conceit -- or guard its not-so-jarring secret." - Hua Hsu, The Village Voice

  • "Freudenberger persuasively puts across both the pettiness of Chinese daily life and the let's-put-on-a-show excitement of a burgeoning Beijing art scene, but there is such a thing as spirit, and despite all her research, she has no access to that of the main character. At times, Yuan seems nothing more than a walking catalogue raisonne: Fact follows incident follows description; the light behind his eyes is always of the same evenness. But then the Travers family comes on the scene, and the light starts getting more dappled and more varied." - Han Ong, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Dissident is the story of a Chinese artist who spends a semester teaching at St.Anselm's School for Girls in California, as well as the family he stays with. Much of the account is in the first person, the dissident of the title recounting his own story (Chinese past and Californian present); oddly, however, many of the chapters focussing on other characters are in the third person -- a (limited) omniscient-narrator perspective that does offer more insight but, because it centres on the lives of (what appear to be) the secondary characters, feels almost at odds with the dissident's account, more distraction than complement.
       Whose story is it anyway ? Questions of identity are one of the book's main themes, but Freudenberger seems unable to decide whose story she wants to tell. There are a fill of significant characters, including the well-off Travers couple the dissident stays with (Cece and professor and psychiatrist Gordon) and their teenage children Max and Olivia, as well as Gordon's siblings, the writer Joan and ne'er-do-well Phil. Many are at crossroads: Max is doing community service because of the gun found when he was pulled over driving (illegally), Cece and Gordon's marriage maybe isn't that solid any longer, and Phil might have just struck it rich by selling out to Hollywood (and has to decide whether or not to propose to his long-suffering, serious (and unlikely) girlfriend, the attorney Aubrey). It makes for a lot of strands, and some get lost in the mix.
       Oh, right, and there's that dissident fellow. Yes, his story is the central one -- but even that isn't that straightforward.
       Everybody is trying to figure out who they really are, to fix (in both senses of the word) their identities. Gordon has become obsessed with his new hobby -- genealogy. For the teens it's the usual teenage issues. Phil has to decide whether he's the settling-down kind of guy. Cece has to figure out what to do with herself now that the kids are almost grown ("This will be the last year they're both at home, won't it ?" Joan reminds her).
       And there's the dissident, who comes with identity issues of his own -- one fundamental one, in particular. Burdening the character with that is one of the oddest aspects of the book, as it is unclear whether Freudenberger means to make a surprise of it, or wants the reader to be part of the game all along. In either case she fails: it's fairly clear exactly who the dissident is from very early on -- but it's only openly acknowledged very late into the book. The coy dance around it -- the unnecessary 'hints' and too-convenient situations (in particular the way Harry Lim -- who had met the dissident a decade earlier and was also responsible for getting him invited to the US and arranging an art show for him -- avoids him for so long) -- are simply confusing. What is the point of these games ? It should have either been explicitly acknowledged from the beginning -- or made into a true surprise. As is, it's just annoying.
       Another problem with the dissident is that, regardless of who he is, he is not much of a dissident. Yes, part of the lore around him is that he was a jailed artist -- but there's essentially no regime-criticism (except of the most indirect sort) to be found here. Indeed, The Dissident is strikingly apolitical -- from the art made by the dissident and his crowd to the American attitudes (generally, as well as specifically regarding him). The focus -- on cultural (as opposed to political) difference, as well as art itself -- isn't a bad alternative, but titling the book, and identifying its protagonist with such a loaded label distracts from what's really of interest to Freudenberger.
       The Dissident is an artist's tale. In China Yuan Zhao had been part of the Beijing 'East Village' scene. It was the narrator's cousin -- whom he refers to only as 'X' -- who had introduced him to the art-scene there, inviting him to some of the performance pieces he was creating, and then getting him involved in the production of a very short-lived magazine. The art they made at this time -- in the early and mid-1990s -- was completely new for China, and also something that did not thrill the authorities (hence the eventual crack-down).
       Interestingly, the narrator does not even think of himself as an original artist. He admits from the very beginning:

I have always been impressionable, skilled at mimicry. I am, as my teacher admitted, a brilliant copyist.
       This talent -- and limitation -- is what defines the dissident, and the novel has a lot to say about questions of authenticity and art. (It's not just the dissident who is a copyist, either: "For a long time, Joan had imagined writing a novel about Cece and Phil", for example -- and Phil had actually gone so far and used the real-life material in the play that was optioned as a movie.) Many of the characters are playing roles -- most obviously the teens, trying out personas to see what they're comfortable with.
       The art-questions raised in the novel are amusing. In particular there's the issue of the lost East Village performance art, some of which was captured in photographs. Whose art is it -- those in the photographs, or the photographers ? (Complicating the issue: the photographs now sell for impressive amounts .....) As the photographer explains:
     "If I photograph him, then it is art, no matter who's making it. Problem is -- without him I'm nothing; without me his work disappears. That's the big question, see ? Whose art is it ?
       The dissident is also concerned with more basic issues, worried that because he can't produce original work he is, in fact, a sort of fraud. He's not necessarily well-suited to teaching the AP class of girls he's assigned to, but he can teach them a thing or two -- and prods them to think a bit, as with his assignment to: "Make something that is not art." (Mercifully, Freudenberger does not burden the book with too much philosophizing and lecturing, trying to show more by example -- but even she can't avoid the occasional (too simplistically) telling dialogue.)
       Things do improve -- but also get more complicated -- when a student joins the class who really is an artist. June is of Chinese background, but doesn't speak the language -- but she has that ... X-quality. Of course, it's not easy being an artist, and June-the-dissident is about as successful with her little East Village-type experiments at St.Anselm's as X and his cousin were in Beijing .....
       And then there's the dissident's own art show -- a great success, if also in slightly unexpected ways. As Harry Lim (who finally makes an appearance) sums up jollily:
     "If you asked me to choose a title for this show," Harry projected (he was no longer using the microphone), "I would not choose DNA-ture. I would call tonight: Yuan Zhao in America, and I would not hesitate to call it his best and cleverest performance to date."
       (Not quite followed by the wink of an eye, but at least the flashes of the cameras ... as with much in the novel, it's all not very subtle, but at least here it's fairly fun.)
       There are more (and more) layers: the uneasy relationship of the girls with their art teacher (and the quick over-reaction when one voices some concerns), Joan wanting to write something about the dissident, two couples resolving their relationships (Cece and Gordon, Phil and Aubrey). Some of this works quite well, but there's an incredible amount of excess baggage here. Storylines are brought up -- troubled Max and his girlfriend from the wrong side of the tracks, for example -- and then completely ignored for much of the novel. Characters rise to the fore -- Cece, in particular, but also Phil and his Hollywood adventures --; occasionally these are interesting parts, but often they seem almost entirely irrelevant. (Cece is perhaps the book's most successful (and certainly most interesting) character; Phil is (like his character) a dud.)
       The dissident also spends a great deal of space recounting his life in China, specifically (but not only) the time he spent in his cousin's artistic circle. Some of this is interesting, but it gets to be a bit much for the few bits that are relevant to the rest of the narrative. (In addition, the dance not only regarding identities but, for example, leading up to what happened between the dissident and his girlfriend, is an annoying delayed presentation of significant information.) Finally, there's an odd resolution to the book, its final chapter written by the dissident six years after he left Los Angeles, revealing what became of some of the characters in the meantime, a rather abrupt tying together of a few of the strands (but leaving us guessing about many others).
       Scene and theme-focussed, Freudenberger does quite well with parts of the book, but at the cost of the novel as a whole. She's unable to keep the secondary characters down, for example, too enamored of the stories she invents for them. It makes for an oddly shifting focus -- as elsewhere, where it seems she's even not quite sure what should be the dominant part of the story: the girls' school ? the Travers' household ? the artist, in China and elsewhere ? (Using all of them would be fine as well if she were more in control of the subject matter, but she's looking for too much stand-out material, rather than supporting material.) And we didn't even mention the bush baby yet .....
       Written fluidly, with (with a few exceptions) more than enough going on to hold the reader's interest, and with a rapid-fire constantly scene-changing presentation (there are 80 chapters to the novel ...), The Dissident has an adequate number of either pleasing or thoughtful moments. As a whole, however, it does disappoint, straying quite too far afield, and not using everything to best effect. The dissident is admittedly young (born in 1975, the same year -- presumably not too coincidentally -- as author Freudenberger herself), but it's not so much his voice as the whole approach that give a slightly immature feel to the book, which seems ultimately a clever but not worldly adolescent's tale. Interestingly, several of the girls in the book are such adolescents, and Freudenberger pegs them fairly well; indeed, she seems to feel most at ease when in the St.Anselm's-setting (and seems to have been sorely tempted to make it a school-book -- which, though less original, would probably also have been considerably more fun). And for all that Freudenberger has (so all the publicity material) seen and experienced of the world, she is most convincing when describing the household of the family the dissident stays with -- and far less so in imagining X and his cousin and the artistic happenings in the East Village.
       The Dissident is a painless reading experience -- Freudenberger writes well enough, page for page --, and it occasionally seems to promise quite a lot: ideas are suggested, she begins to shape characters. But not enough comes of it here. The rudiments are there, but she gets carried away and astray, leaving characters as well as the larger concept incomplete.

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The Dissident: Reviews: Nell Freudenberger: Other books by Nell Freudenberger under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Nell Freudenberger was born in 1975.

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© 2006-2012 the complete review

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