Author: Weike Wang
Genre: Fiction, contemporary
Where I got the book: I received a free e-copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
My rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: Discouraged by her failed research and under constant pressure from her peers, advisors, and parents, our unnamed narrator decides to leave her graduate chemistry studies at a Boston university. The marriage proposal from her devoted and successful boyfriend also keeps looming over her, a proposal she feels she can’t address before she’s found success of her own. As she leaves everything behind, she is confronted with a question she can’t find the answer to in a textbook: “What is it that I really want?”
“A Chinese proverb says that mastery of three things will make you fearless anywhere in the world. They are math, physics, and chemistry.”
– Chemistry, Weike Wang
Where I expected a light contemporary with a romantic twist, I instead got a rather quirky, different read. At the same time I found it unexpectedly profound and relatable. On one hand it’s a tiny (barely 200 pages) slice-of-life novel, it deals with some issues that I think are quite familiar to many people, but on the other hand it’s subtly emotional and even heartbreaking at some points.
This is a very scattered and somewhat unstructured book, but in this case that’s a good thing. We’re given direct insight into the protagonist’s mind, which is scattered and unstructured in itself, something that perfectly reflects how adrift she feels. This, in turn, naturally affects the narrative. The story, which is very loosely plot-driven but mostly centered around the protagonist, tends to jump around a lot. Sometimes there are big leaps between past and present and the paragraphs are many and short, but it is surprisingly easy to follow. Many of the minor characters also remain nameless and are simply referred to for example as “the best friend”, but I didn’t find this confusing at all.
My favorite thing about this novel is in fact the narrative, I very much enjoyed and appreciated it. It is dry, sharp, and hilarious, but it doesn’t take anything away from the fact that the protagonist is on the biggest personal and soul-searching journey of her life so far. It’s serious, intelligent, and profound in a way that doesn’t come off as too deep or obnoxious. There are basically no vague, dreamy, and overly philosophical trails of thought to be found here. It’s all very much real and tangible and it fits the protagonist’s scientific and pragmatic standpoint. At the same time, the dread, the uncertainty, and the anxiety, all the things you cannot solve with a formula, also come across very clearly.
Many different contrasts are also presented and discussed in the novel and they each contribute to character growth. There are contrasts between the protagonist’s PhD studies and her new “lesser” job as a tutor, between her academic journey and her boyfriend’s career, between her and the best friend’s life situation, and not to mention her background and her life as a Chinese-American. Her parents expect only excellence from their daughter and any kind of acknowledgement for her achievements has proven difficult to earn. The way these cultural differences are described present a bit of a cautionary tale for high achievers and those who pressure and demand things of them, but they are also handled in a sensitive, relatable way. Instead of her parents purely taking on an antagonistic role, part of the challenge for the protagonist lies in regaining control and in balancing her parents’ influence in her life. The contrasts between the protagonist’s academic career and that of her boyfriend is also a very significant one, and this becomes clearer and clearer throughout the novel. Her boyfriend is devoted but he is also one those people. Things seem to come to him with ease, he sails through towards success without any obstacles, and his upbringing has been the direct opposite of hers. Eventually it becomes hard for her to imagine a life with someone who never struggled in the way she has and who doesn’t seem to be capable of fully understanding where she’s coming from. Her inability to make up her mind might come off as unreasonable and stubborn in the beginning, but we slowly find more and more understanding and sympathy for this.
This book isn’t for everyone – it is very different in its structure and writing style, the pacing is somewhat erratic and largely character-focused, the protagonist tends to agonize over the same things over and over, and if you happen to find it hard to relate to then there are limits to how interesting this read is. Overall though, I really enjoyed this little novel. These big, almost existential, life anxieties are handled in a funny, deadpan, but also insightful way by a character who turns out to be more complex and relatable than what she may seem initially. This is a solid debut and definitely a book to consider.