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The Dissident

3.32  ·  Rating Details ·  751 Ratings  ·  118 Reviews
From the PEN/Malamud Award-winning author of Lucky Girls comes a bold, intricately woven first novel about an 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's artist's residency in Los Angeles. He is to be a Visiting Scholar at the St. Anselm's School for Gi
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published August 15th 2006 by Ecco (first published 2006)
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Eveline Chao
Nov 27, 2007 Eveline Chao rated it did not like it
This wasn't bad for a first novel, but, eh. Basically none of the characters ever really came to life or drew you in so that you ever felt invested in or particularly attached to any of them.

I think the author was maybe a bit too ambitious with the number of characters. All of them were given a cursory psychology and background and personality but once given the explanation that, say, the middle sister always felt like a gray sheep against her white sheep & black sheep brothers, nothing rea
Nov 04, 2007 Edy rated it really liked it
This was a fabulous book for many reasons. The Chinese artists coming out of the Cultural Revolution have been producing some of the most complex, disturbing, and evocative artwork today. The author uses this as her backdrop to discuss the meaning of art, as well as the purpose of art in our modern world of utility and extreme praticality. The writer's direct, unadorned narrative was accessible, yet profound in its simplicity and frequent hints of a dry, dry wit.

On the nature of artist:

"It's a
Mike Lindgren
Dec 05, 2007 Mike Lindgren rated it liked it
Recommends it for: unhappy wanna-be writers
Shelves: fiction
Nell Freudenberger’s career to date reads like a novel in itself, with her Harvard education, slinky good looks, New Yorker publication, famous literary agent, and mentions in Vogue and Elle. It is a letdown, of sorts, to find that her debut novel is such a banal affair. The Dissident tells the story of Yuan Zhao, an exiled Chinese artist who comes to live with the Traverses, a Southern Californian family that is a Woody Allen-style parody of shallow Beverly Hills life. The dramatis personae ...more
Jan 11, 2013 Daniel rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Nell Freudenberger's The Newlyweds, about a Bangladeshi woman who moves to upstate New York as a mail order, was a pleasant surprise for me last year. Freudenberger seemed as comfortable writing about Dhaka as she did about Rochester, and the novel nicely married the adjustment that any immigrant makes coming to a new country with the more intimate and emotional compromises necessarily for a serious relationship. (She also eschewed cliches about fiction set in Muslim countries, which I was ...more
Jason Pettus
Aug 02, 2007 Jason Pettus rated it did not like it
(The much longer full review can be found at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [].)

(Today's review is chock-full of spoilers, for reasons that will become obvious; those who are planning on reading the book themselves would be well-advised to skip this essay altogether until after finishing the novel. For a quick idea of what I thought of the book, please see the first two spoiler-free paragraphs.)

With the 2008 Beijing Olympics just around the corner, there's never
Jul 24, 2009 Susan rated it it was ok
I really wanted to like this book. It begins with promise, but deflates thereafter. In order to believe in this book, the reader must overlook the author's calculated deception that a character is who the author says he is up until the last few pages of the book when he is revealed to be someone else. It's a little more complicated than that, but that's the essential flaw. Anyone who comments on this book without a "spoiler alert" is confronted by the dilemma of discussing the book without ...more
Oct 02, 2012 M rated it liked it
I enjoyed this 4 stars worth, but the book itself really doesn't deserve more than three.

The Dissident is a tale of deception and quiet desperation as two worlds collide - that of a Chinese man posing as a famous artist in residence in LA, and the family he stays with - the Travers - who are unfolding as their son struggles with depression, their daughter flirts with anorexia, the husband shuts the door on his feelings and the wife falls for his brother.

What I liked: the writing is clean and eng
Sep 30, 2007 G rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: middle-ground
It's ironic that I'm putting this under "no complaints", because I have a lot of criticisms of this book which are fascinating when one thinks about what Freudenberger was attempting with the book. There are a lot of plots at work - a Chinese dissident artist who comes to LA on a fellowship, full of deceit; his host family's slow implosion; the treacherous social strata of the school where the dissident is teaching - and despite Freudenberger's best intentions, the book doesn't come together. ...more
Apr 15, 2008 Whitney rated it it was ok
Well-written. There were moments of honesty and truth I appreciated.

That being said, I don't recommend it to anyone and would probably sell the book. (I never part with books.) Did anyone else notice that some parts of the story you were supposed to be emotionally invested in just ended? Absolutely zero resolution--as in never got mentioned again. I also felt like 'Who in the World cares about the actual Story'?! The decent writing hides the fact that there is no story worth telling. However, a
Sep 28, 2008 Teresa rated it really liked it
nell freudenberger can write. reading her books is so easy on the mind because there's no craziness you have to struggle through in the language.

when i finished it was hard to believe that the protagonist would pull such a risky stunt. i guess he was still unformed as a person and also wanted an escape.

slightly problematic elements: 1) another book about the top 1% of the socioeconomic ladder, 2) a far-fetched scenario, and 3) the neatly tied cinderella ending.

i forgive the problematic things b
May 01, 2008 Maria rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Maria by: The book store manager
The Dissident was a EXTREMELY good book in my opinion. I had a personal connection because everyone reminded me of people i knew. The story was set in L.A and a famous chinese artist was coming to stay with a typical american family. The story revolves around the meaning of family and how one person can come in and change everything. There are ways to show teenage to parent bonds, husband to wife, and stranger to disaster. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone because you can find ...more
Jul 22, 2010 Elizabeth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
5 stars for the writing, three for totally dropping the ball in the last 40 pages or so... I would definitely read more of her stuff, but hope she learns to tie up a plot more satisfyingly.
Nov 15, 2016 Kristen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the best novels I've read in a while; read it again as soon as I finished.
Jul 30, 2012 Jenny rated it liked it
Shelves: 2012-challenge
Excellent writing, appealing characters (especially Cece, for no reason I could put my finger on), an inventive twist, a convincing setting: this is a very good novel by a talented author. The narration swaps back and forth between first person (the eponymous dissident) and third limited (Cece, her sister-in-law Joan, her brother-in-law Phil), which I found slightly jarring at first but fine once I recognized the pattern.


...we didn't want to know the truth about each others' situations. W
E. Ce Miller
Mar 23, 2015 E. Ce Miller rated it really liked it
Though filled with complex, infuriating and sympathetic characters, the star of “The Dissident” is really art—and all the forms that it may take; successful and otherwise.

Each character in Nell Freudenberger’s novel is on his or her own artistic journey; some endeavoring more meaningfully than others but all, nonetheless, supremely real. At the center of “The Dissident” is the dissident himself (sort of)—Yuan Zhao (again, sort of)—a mysterious copy-artist whose unoriginal work begs the question
May 24, 2012 Kenny rated it it was ok
I breezed through this, though the canvas is quite large, like the painting by Cangyuan Shan Ren that keeps getting referenced throughout - there are a few too many characters that are too subtly developed. The resolution of many of these character's plot-lines, particularly the Taverses seems almost under-developed, or rather their fates are so....empty and sad. I had this gaping hole inside the pit of my stomach wanting a more fulfilling ending.

There is a sense of something missing that you co
Aug 30, 2013 Bjwallington rated it liked it
"This was the second time an important moment in my life had been marked by a piece of performance art involving fish. ( How many people can write that sentence truthfully?)"
Wonderful passages like this show how talented Nell Freudenberger's writing can be though she overreaches that talent overall in this book. This is the second text I've read recently by young women writers that touch on China in the years following Tiananmen Square. The other was the play "Chimerica" by Lucy Kirkwood which
Sarah Tittle
Jul 15, 2016 Sarah Tittle rated it really liked it
First of all, I was surprised that this is Freudenberger's first novel. I guess I know her short stories and thought she had written other novels as well. At any rate, what a strange topic for a first novel! A Chinese man travels to California, posing as his cousin, a well-known artist who has been jailed in China for controversial practices. So we learn a lot about life in 21st century China, which I think is very fascinating, especially the way that avant garde artists lived and thought. In ...more
Mrs. Reed
May 19, 2010 Mrs. Reed rated it really liked it
This is a book I probably never would have chosen myself, first of all because it has a boring title, and second of all because the blurb on the back doesn't do it justice. Luckily, I have amazing Friends Who Read, and Mary-Margaret intelligently passed this one on to me.
I never really liked any of the characters--I never found myself really "rooting" for any of them--but strangely, that was actually preferable in this story. Well, maybe I liked the bush baby. They aren't really good people, and
Apr 24, 2007 Amy rated it really liked it
I would like to give this book 3.7 stars :)

I really liked this novel, partially because the plot is not easily summarized at all (as I realized by trying to begin this review with a summary). Here's an attempt: The story focuses on a Chinese artist/political dissident who comes to California on a fellowship to teach art/work on his own art. He says with a well off family, who is not without their own problems and drama. Some chapters are told first-person by the Chinese "dissident" (I cannot sup
Dec 13, 2015 Cflack rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting tidbits, but doesn't hold together as a compelling work. It reminded me of other books/movies which treaded similar territory - the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills and the book (which I loved) Where'd You Go Bernadette, but it's not as good as either of these. My understanding is that Freudenberger is a short story writer. The novel is made up of vignettes which would be wonderful short stories, but as a complete novel I felt it was uneven. The depiction of the performance art ...more
A book with a few good moments and an interesting 1st person narrative about the history of avant-garde artists in communist China, but that ultimately builds to a climax that leaves the reader wondering, "Really? That's what it was all about?" Very disappointing.

It's obvious Freudenberger spent all her time researching and developing the character of the Dissident himself, as anything dealing directly with his past is quite interesting and compelling. Ironically, though, all the American charac
May 06, 2008 Lisa rated it liked it
This is a solid, if not spectacular, effort by a first-time novelist (although she's an accomplished short story writer). First, the good: Freudenberger really nails the sense of place, and she's a skilled wordsmith - plenty of evocative turns of phrase. And she handles the back-and-forth between POVs quite nicely. That said - the pacing feels uneven. It's slow to the point of inertia in the first half, then accelerates too rapidly, as if she were rushing for the finish line. And the ...more
Dec 15, 2009 Hubert rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 22, 2014 Kristyn rated it really liked it
This is one of those great, big, messy books that sort of succeeds and sort of doesn't. The author's strength leads to her weakness: she's skilled at creating many interesting characters and complicating their lives, but many of the narrative threads dissipated or were dropped at the end. As with multi-narrative books, it was jarring each time I entered a different chapter focused on or narrated by another character. By the end, though, I was interested in all the situations so it was ...more
Jun 27, 2012 Lisa rated it liked it
I hope her new book is more interesting than this one. The parts about the Chinese artist told in flashbacks in his voice were the most interesting parts of the book and the idea of art as identity (meaning who is the artist, the person who does a performance piece or the person who publishes a photo of the piece?) particularly in post-Tiananmen Square Beijing was intriguing to think about. In contrast, the American wealthy family in the book was so boring. The book was really about the Chinese ...more
Feb 04, 2013 Fiona rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013
Torn between three and four stars here. Four for the interesting ideas about art, what it is and what it is for, who owns or authors it, how it fits into political context, and for a real sense of time and place when describing the Beijing East Village art community.
Three for the rest, which was readable but not fabulous. Fewer characters would have been a bonus as there are one or two who seem pointless and not explored in any meaningful way. However I identified with the Cece character and he
Jan 03, 2009 Sara rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
My like of Freudenberger's short stories convinced me to give her novel a try. I had a bit more difficulty with this, and I wasn't helped by the deceit that lays at the story's core. The characters are well-drawn, even if some are more than a bit bizarre. Let's just say the Traverses are a unique family, and let it go at that. The book left me wanting to know more about Chinese culture, especially the art world and the suppression of dissidents undertaken by the Chinese government. On the whole, ...more
Nov 09, 2008 Alyssa rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Alyssa by: Andrew
The Dissident reads like the work of a young author--plenty of intrigue and drama, but the story and characters never seem to develop in quite the right way. The novel centers around the dissident, a Chinese artist on a fellowship in California. Freudenberger might have watched too many made-for-TV-movies while writing this novel. The many characters all seem to be hiding something, but whatever that may be is more often than not undiscovered by the reader. The novel ends will all the loose ...more
Nov 26, 2007 Emily rated it really liked it
I picked this book up because the author was on Granta's "young authors to watch" list a few months ago. I've been slowly working through the list and it's been an interesting bunch so far. I enjoyed this book quite a bit. On the most basic level a really engrossing story, which is always nice. I also liked how it explored the relationship between artistic creation and the creation of identity. I did feel that about midway through the book the plot complications and twists began to pile up, ...more
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Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novel The Dissident and the story collection Lucky Girls, winner of the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; both books were New York Times Book Review Notables. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship from the New York Publi ...more
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“... you sometimes had to force people to say things they would rather not articulate, just so they could hear their own words. It was interesting the way people could know things and not know them at the same time. Denial, he said, was like a thick stone wall.” 19 likes
“He didn't understand how sadness came so easily to people. For him it was like a pile of rocks that had to be moved one at a time. Just thinking about it made him tired.” 6 likes
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