Weike Wang’s Chemistry is a deceptively little book. The unnamed narrator is a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry trying to figure out her dissertation and struggling, discovering that perhaps she does not love chemistry enough to succeed. Perhaps she is just really smart, but does not have that creative spark to see something new. Perhaps her entire life course is all about what her parents want, not what she wants.
Her boyfriend Eric meanwhile is asking her to marry him and she can’t bring herself to say yes. Eric can understand without really comprehending. He insists they are not her parents. She thinks a lot about her parents. She’s very loyal to them and still not free of needing their approval while her memories are haunted by their rages, cruelties, and neglect. She has spent so many years trying to be what they want, she needs to work to even try to think about what she wants.
She has a breakdown, drops out of school, Eric takes a job and moves away, and she spends a year putting herself back together again and maybe discovering a new way of seeing her parents and also, perhaps, discovering what she wants.
Chemistry is written in little fragments that seem as though our narrator is jotting down some thoughts in a journal, perhaps, not the “Dear Diary” kind of recitation of what she did, but capturing thoughts and dreams and conversations that seem important. Our unnamed grad student has a wry, deadpan kind of humor that appeals to me. She takes ideas from science and applies them to her life. She tells troubling stories from her childhood with little affect. So that happened. She ends these stories abruptly, not contextualizing them. This is an unusual way of writing, but it extremely effective. She’s calling on us, the reader, to synthesize the stories into an understanding of her prickly isolation.
I loved this book a lot. It is small, but mighty. Our storyteller has experienced a lot of pain, but while it shapes her, she does not wallow in self-pity. She is analytical and thoughtful. She talks about science, the Chinese language and fits it into what she is thinking about life. I think it’s fascinating that the only person with a name is Eric. The others are the best friend, the student, my mother, my father. They are defined by their relationships, Eric is himself.
There is real immediacy in this story and such authenticity. It is almost hard to believe it’s fiction, it seems so real, so very personal. For such a short book, I expect I will be thinking about it for a long time.
Chemistry was released today. I received an advance copy through a drawing on Shelf Awareness.