In The Dissident, Nell Freudenberger traverses two worlds separated by a long distance, and not just geographically.

Drawing, presumably, on her experience teaching English and volunteering for human rights groups in Asia, the 31-year-old author of the acclaimed story collection Lucky Girls presents a tale about a young man from communist China who secures an artist's residency in Los Angeles.

For the affluent family hosting him, and at the tony school where he lands a job, Yuan Zhao, as he calls himself, is both a celebrity and a curiosity.

His family's struggles and his own involvement in an underground art movement in Beijing reinforce the political and cultural divide between China and the United States, particularly for more privileged Americans.

But what makes this first novel so impressive, and so richly entertaining and moving, is the range and complexity of its individual characters. Freudenberger draws them with a level of sophistication and compassion that can't be attributed merely to her extensive travel or native precociousness.

The men and women we meet include Cece, the sheltered, frustrated psychiatrist's wife who welcomes the artist into her home; Phil, the psychiatrist's more sensual, less focused younger brother, whose relationship with Cece is clearly more fraught than that of most in-laws; and June, the talented, rebellious Chinese-American student who helps raise questions for the artist, and for us, about the nature and responsibility of creative expression.

The book's title, in fact, has resonance when applied to all these characters, particularly Cece and June, who in very different ways ultimately challenge established notions of how they should behave, and what, and whom, they're supposed to believe in.

Another vital, nuanced character is identified simply as X: the artist's cousin, whom we meet in chapters written from the artist's perspective, which detail Beijing's late-20th-century subculture with wit and verve. Freudenberger relays the drama surrounding Cece and her relatives in their community just as deftly, and explores the secrets harbored by members of each family with both sensitivity and cunning.

Even if you don't recognize a familiar spirit amid this eclectic bunch though chances are, you will Freudenberger's brisk, buoyant humanism will make you feel at home in the world.