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In Brief: Memoirs
Washington Post Book World
September 16, 2001

Departures & Arrivals
by Eric Newby

Wuhu Diary: On Taking My Adopted Daughter Back to Her Hometown in China
by Emily Prager
(Random House)

by Bella Stander

In refreshing contrast to many other current memoirists, Eric Newby, author of Departures & Arrivals, mentions only one melancholy childhood memory: He used to cry whenever his silk-trading parents set off from their London home on their annual sales trip. The rest of this memoir-cum-travelogue is full of amusing anecdotes, quotations, offhand remarks and evocative descriptions of some of the many places that the octogenarian British writer and his equally adventurous wife have visited around the globe. Here, for example, is his portrait of how they set out on the Direct Orient train to Istanbul: "In those now far-off days, the traveling rich could actually be seen traveling . . . how they contrive to move about now is a mystery -- and at the Gare de Lyon the platform was crowded with conspicuous consumers." As they near their destination, the mysteries grow more picturesque: They travel "round the seaward walls of Istanbul and out to Seraglio Point, where the Sultan used to have his odalisques drowned in weighted sacks." In a chapter called "Follies and Grottoes," Newby ruefully chronicles how he and his wife had a stonemason build a Gothic grotto to complement their new home in South Devon. His description of the finished product could also sum up the British royal family: "built to last, dotty, cheerful, elegant and . . . completely useless." Newby is the perfect travel (or bedside) companion: observant, hardy and irreverent.

Its cumbersome title is the only drawback to Wuhu Diary: On Taking My Adopted Daughter Back to Her Hometown in China by Emily Prager. This clear-eyed yet moving book sheds much welcome light on life in latter-day China, while recounting the peculiar challenges of adopting a baby. In 1994, Prager, a single New York novelist and newspaper columnist then in her early forties, traveled to China to retrieve her adopted daughter, LuLu. Four years later, she took the little girl for a six-week sojourn in the city of Wuhu in Anhui province, where she had been abandoned as a newborn and reared in a state-run orphanage. Prager hoped that LuLu could establish a connection to the land of her birth -- and for her own part, was looking to find out more about her daughter's antecedents and maybe to meet the people who cared for her in infancy.

Having spent part of her childhood in Taiwan, Prager has a special fondness for things Chinese, and she highlights often-surprising aspects of the country not featured in news accounts and documentaries. We see exquisitely landscaped parks, pedestrians picking their way across gaping holes in the middle of the street, a "pet zoo" with filthy caged dogs, preschools that put American ones to shame and adults who always have time to play with a small child. Prager depicts emotions as well as the sights, recording her fear when the Chinese react with intense anti-American sentiment to the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade, as well as LuLu's devastation when she learns that her original family left her out on the street. Anyone who doesn't get misty-eyed over the epilogue, which ends with the letter that Prager wrote to LuLu's birth mother, must have a heart of stone.

© 2001 Bella Stander

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