The Dissident is big and ambitious. Nell Freudenberger tries to do a lot and usually she succeeds. It's a complicated story of a Chinese artist who comes to Los Angeles on a cultural exchange program and the affluent American family who hosts him.
Can I just list some of the topics Freudenberger tackles? Adolescent ennui, adultery, Chinese experimental art, culture shock, the nature of commitment, the Hollywood movie industry, identity and Tiananmen Square. With this many balls in the air at once, it's not surprising that a few of them drop and roll away without our ever knowing where they end up (the underdeveloped subplot about the American family's troubled son Max is an especially annoying loose end). For the most part though, Freudenberger deftly manages her many characters, multiple points of view and shifting chronology.
At 427 pages this is not a quick read; it took me almost ten days. Recently I've been complaining about books that are too long but I think this book is just the right length. The ten days includes some time rereading parts that I misunderstood the first time through. You have to pay attention when you read this, but since when is that a bad thing?
Andrew O'Hehir, writing for Salon.com, calls The Dissident "an ingenious and strikingly mature book, entirely free of the callow attitude and self-absorption one associates with first novels." I too thought this; I was very surprised to discover that Freudenberger is in her early 30s and has only published one previous collection of short stores. This seems like the work of a more established writer, despites its flaws. It's got some of the breadth and unpredictability of early John Irving novels, though without Irving's oddball humor.