Saturday, December 11, 2021

Review: Chemistry by Weike Wang

I loved school. Right up until I hit grad school. Then I couldn't wait to get out. Originally I wanted a PhD. Then I didn't. I still love learning things purely for learning's sake but I don't think I'd want to ever go back to school again and deal with the angst and the politics and all the other nonsense that has nothing to do with learning. It was not a happy place to be for me. And it is not a happy place to be for Weike Wang's unnamed narrator in the novel Chemistry. Then again, nowhere in her life seems particularly happy.

The narrator of this novel is standing still, afraid to choose a path. She is a PhD student in Chemistry but her project is stalled and she isn't certain she wants to continue. Her boyfriend has proposed but she's put him off, not answering him, thinking always of her own parents' unhappy marriage. She is floundering under the weight of so many expectations--from her parents, from her advisor, from her boyfriend. The only one in her life who doesn't add to her stress and pressure is her dog. Finally quitting school four years into her PhD to tutor others, she can't bring herself to tell her traditional Chinese immigrant parents and let them down. Unable to commit one way or another to her boyfriend, she keeps things open, staying behind when he moves from Boston to a school in Ohio for a job. But stasis is not living and while the narrator needs time and space to find her own path and learn to embrace uncertainty, she will examine herself, her choices, and her wants with the help of a therapist and her doctor friend.

Told entirely in the first person, the reader still feels somewhat at a remove from the main character. She is quite introspective, jumping from her present to scenes from her parents' lives to her own childhood. She can be dryly witty and the science facts sprinkled throughout the text as asides are appropriate and interesting additions to her thoughts. The writing is spare and choppy and composed in small chunks, like flash pieces knitted together into a whole. The insight into life as a second generation Chinese-American woman is interesting but overall, the main character and her life felt stultifying. The novel as a whole is very slow moving despite its slight length. I wanted to enjoy this a lot more than I did.

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