Book Review: "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven" by Susan Jane Gilman

In 1986, Susan Jane Gilman and a classmate embarked on a bold trek around the globe starting in the People's Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent backpackers for roughly ten minutes. Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche and Linda Goodman's Love Signs, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads--hungry, disoriented, stripped of everything familiar, and under constant government surveillance. Soon, they began to unravel--one physically, the other psychologically. As their journey became increasingly harrowing, they found themselves facing crises that Susan didn't think they'd survive. But by summoning strengths she never knew she had--and with help from unexpected friends--the two travelers found their way out of a Chinese heart of darkness.

Like I have said before, I have been on a huge memoir kick lately. This book appealed to me because it takes place in China and there's traveling as well. I have become a HUGE fan of the Travel channel lately so I've been reading a lot of books that have to do with travel as it's something I can't do right now except in books. This book really captured my attention and I could not put it down while I was reading.

There were times of the book when I wanted to scream at both Claire and Susan.
I know this book takes place in the 80s when not much was known about mental illness as it we do now. Therefore I could understand why Susan thought Claire was just being annoying at first. However, when things started getting worse, instead of thinking about getting help, Susan still thought that Claire was just acting up and acting like a spoiled brat. I guess I really shouldn't be annoyed with Claire because it's obvious that she went through a mental breakdown. I honestly think that she should have never even left for the trip in the first place. It was obvious that her whole life she had been pampered and sheltered and never exposed to the real world before. Going to China and seeing what life was really like was a complete shock and she just couldn't handle it. I was tad disappointed that we don't know what happens to Claire at the end of the story. I can accept the explanation given but all the same it's still a letdown. Also of note, the author says in the beginning of the book that she had changed and hidden the identity of Claire so much, she was almost unrecognizable.

As I said, the book takes place in the 80s before even Tienanmen Square or the Beijing Olympics. A lot has changed in China since then so I think it would be interesting to see Gilman take another trip back to the country and discuss the differences. The book doesn't make China seem like a backwater dangerous country because you have to remember that the country is being seen by two college students who are young and vulnerable.
If you are expecting a travelogue type book, you're not going to find it in this book. It's a memoir and not a travel guide. Don't expect to read about sweeping adventures across China or tight focus on Susan's travels. It's more about her experiences in the country, both the physical and psychological adventures than it is a tour guide.

Personally I think this book would make a wonderful movie. Gilman does a really good job at making her story come alive and I really felt like I was there with her and feeling her emotions. This book was a page turner and I never once got bored while reading. Gilman hints that if she feels the urge, she would write a book about the rest of the travels she took while on that trip. I really hope she does because it would definitely be a book I would love to read. The book was a joy to read and I had a lot of fun traveling along with Susan. If you have wanted to discover China or a looking for a really good memoir, this book is perfect for you. HIGHLY recommended.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
by Susan Jane Gilman is published by Grand Central Publishing (2010)

This review copy was provided by the publisher


  1. Jennifer (5M4B) also read this one and highly recommended it, as I recall. The title is certainly eye catching! =D

    Glad to know your thoughts on it!

  2. Thank you so much for your glowing review! I really wanted to recount my story in a gripping way. It sounds like I succeeded. I was ridiculously naive when I went to China, and I never expected to have such a harrowing adventure. People tell me it reads like a thriller, though it's a true story.
    If anyone is interested in my continuing adventures, I write a blog, "A View from a Broad" about my current travels, life as an expat, and insights about American culture and others that arise from my wanderlust. It's at
    Thank you again -- and enjoy the read!

  3. I'm screaming because you got such an awesome comment from the author!!

    I really liked this book too! You should listen to the Blog Talk Radio interview with Susan Jane Gilmore. She talks about trying to find Claire!

  4. I wondered whether Claire's dad also had some latent mental illness or whether he suspected there was something 'wrong' with her since he was so against the whole thing

  5. I've been on a memoir kick lately, too, and definitely think this would appeal to me! Plus, I've been madly interested in China since reading Justina Chen Headley's North Of Beautiful. I'll look for this one!


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