Tennis Book Review
October 2016

A Beautiful Country
 
By J.R. Thornton
London, United Kingdom
www.jrthornton.net
 
Reviewed by Rich Neher


 

How does the author describe his book?

A coming-of-age story set in modern day China centering on the friendship between an American and a Chinese boy who meet while training with Beijing’s Junior National Tennis Team.

Chase Robertson arrives in Beijing as a fourteen-year-old boy still troubled by the recent death of his older brother. He discovers a country in transition; a society in which the dual systems of Communist Era state control and an emerging entrepreneurial culture exist in paradox.

A top ranked junior tennis player in the U.S., Chase joins the practices of the Beijing National Junior Tennis Team and is immersed in the brutal, cut-throat world of Chinese sport. It is a world in which gifted children are selected at the ages of six or seven for specialized sport schools where they devote their entire youth to the pursuit of athletic excellence and are paid as professionals by the state. Athletes find themselves compelled to do anything possible to succeed—right or wrong. Those who fail to reach the pinnacle are cast aside and are left facing a desperate future without hope.

In China, Chase gains access to a culture rarely open to Westerners, and soon finds himself caught up in secrets. When his closest friend and teammate turns to him for help, Chase is faced with the dilemma of what to do when friendship, rules, and morals are in conflict.

A big-hearted debut, Beautiful Country explores a friendship against the backdrop of a quickly changing country.

How do others describe his book?

Corrie Dosh writes in BeijingReview.com.com

Dosh quotes Thornton, "The narrator of the book is a character similar to me. He is a 14-year-old American playing tennis within the Chinese state tennis system. While there, he befriends one of the players on the Chinese team who is exceptionally gifted, very independent and somewhat rebels against the limits and rigid structure of the system. I went to China with a blank slate, with no expectations and ready to take it all in," Thornton said. "I looked for the similarities, not the differences, and one thing I noticed with the boys I played tennis with who were 14 and 15 [years old] is that we shared a lot. I think many cultural differences that people try to create—if you don't look for them—don't exist."

The novel was first published in Mandarin, to great critical acclaim from the Chinese press. Kai-fu Lee, Founding President of Google China and CEO of Innovation Works, commented, "This is a beautiful novel. The author's unique perspective, notably on the struggle and destiny of Chinese adolescents, really makes this a worthwhile read for young Chinese."

Ling-Mei Wong writes in Sampan.org:

America is literally translated as “beautiful country” in Chinese. And yet, while the book’s title refers to America, it’s China that fills every page, starting from the beginning when the protagonist, Chase Robertson, is shipped off to Beijing after his brother Tom overdoses on ecstasy. There, Chase gradually begins to confront stereotypes about China and himself. Thornton himself was an internationally ranked junior tennis player who lived in Beijing as a teenager, and as such seasons his novel with authentic observations.

Chase develops a wracking cough from Beijing’s pollution and finds the tennis training facilities equipped with poorly maintained courts, old balls with no bounce and ancient rackets. While Chase enjoyed coaching from a former Scandinavian tennis pro in America, his Chinese teammates learn the sport from a former volleyball player who knows nothing about tennis. The Chinese boys were selected at ages seven or eight for a chance to be career athletes, and have been left to fend for themselves in this cutthroat arena ever since. Should they survive annual cuts, they would represent Beijing at the National Games — a domestic Olympics — every four years against other cities.

“The lucky ones were the players who were cut when they were still young enough to learn to do something else,” Thornton wrote. “…They were given one opportunity, just one. It was theirs to manage and there was no one to help them.”

“Beautiful Country” avoids the patronizing trope of a white messiah redeeming Chinese yokels. Instead, Chase is a brat who is humbled by his Chinese teammates and learns to appreciate his good fortune. Thornton may hail from the West, but he captures China’s desperate yearning for a better life in his searing novel.

What did I get out of this book?

I liked "Beautiful Country" the same way I like historical novels. They give me the best of two worlds - facts and fantasy, although this author is obviously writing from personal experience rather than research like it's usually done in historical fiction. What made it hard for me to put this book down was the way Thornton weaved tennis into the overall theme of describing his travels through a beautiful but very challenging country: China.

For someone like me who has never had the chance to travel to China, this book offers a seemingly never ending stream of information about the country, its people, the traffic, the transportation system, the smog (!) and the customs as they relate to doing business with foreigners (the main character's dad). This is such a foreign yet fascinating world for me, the book made me want to travel there despite the pollution in major population areas.

The tennis side of the book is what made me read it in the first place, of course. And, again, I found the way the author describes the Chinese system of generating star athletes fascinating. But I found it also shocking to read the conditions young tennis hopefuls have to practise under and the careless and almost ruthlessness way the system treats the ones who do not make the cut. Eye opening, to say the least. No wonder so many western tennis professionals think there is great potential for them and their proven methods of finding, developing and coaching talent in China.

I can recommend reading "Beautiful Country" to everyone interested in the country China. But you don't have to be a tennis player to necessarily like the book. If you happen to be a tennis player, bingo! You have another reason to read it. I enjoyed it immensely.

David Berens "Break Point"

Frank Giampaolo "Tennis Parent's Bible" 2nd Ed.

David Sammel "Locker Room Power"

2015/2016
Mike VanZutphen "Tennis Management" 

Becky Gunn Holmes "Totally Tennis For Me"

BOOK REVIEWS
Joe Parent / Bill Scanlon "ZEN Tennis" 

Bill Patton "The Art of Coaching High School Tennis"

Rocky Lang "Learn Your Game"

ABOUT J.R. THORNTON

Born in London, J.R. Thornton graduated from Harvard in 2014 where he studied History, English and Chinese.

He lived in Beijing as a teenager, returning recently to undertake a fellowship at the International Writer’s Center at Beijing Normal University.

An internationally ranked tennis player as a junior, he later competed for the Harvard men’s team and on the professional circuit.

Beautiful Country is his debut novel.

 
J.R. Thornton
www.jrthornton.net
J.R. Thornton is represented by:
Andrew Wylie
THE WYLIE AGENCY
250 West 57th Street
Suite 2114
New York, NY 10107
(212) 246 0069
mail@wylieagency.com

 

 

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