Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: "Chemistry" by Weike Wang

Here's a bit of a cautionary tale for those of you who might put too much pressure on your children to succeed academically, or those of you who push yourself too hard.

"The optimist sees the glass half full. The pessimist sees the glass half empty. The chemist sees the glass completely full, half in liquid state and half gaseous, both of which are probably poisonous."

Chemistry is spare and slightly quirky, yet it is surprisingly profound and moving. The unnamed narrator of Weike Wang's debut novel is a PhD student in chemistry at a university in Boston. She's been at her studies for several years and hasn't yet had the research breakthrough that will lead to her completing her dissertation, receiving her PhD, and hopefully getting a job, much to the chagrin and frustration of her Chinese parents, who will accept nothing less than success from her. They don't want excuses, delays, explanations—if she doesn't get her PhD, she's no longer their daughter.

"Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is a fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you. It can't be the chemicals' fault, you think. They have no souls."

As if her academic challenges weren't enough, her longtime boyfriend Eric has proposed marriage. A fellow scientist, Eric has followed his academic dreams without any challenges, and is on the cusp of getting a teaching job somewhere other than Boston. He doesn't understand why she can't accept the possibility that perhaps chemistry, and maybe even science altogether, isn't right for her. All he knows is how right they are for each other, so he can't fathom why she won't accept his proposal and go with him wherever his job takes him, and stop allowing her parents to rule her life.

But how can she give up her dreams to follow Eric, without giving her work all she has? Can she actually make a life with someone who has never had to struggle, whose parents support his every move, and give him the self-belief he needs?

When the pressure becomes too much to bear, she makes a split-second decision that changes everything. And now she has no idea what she wants, from her career, her relationship, her parents, or herself. Should she teach? Should she marry Eric and/or move with him? Should she tell her parents how she really feels, or work to finally make them proud of her? The dilemmas she faces turn her into a wholly different person, one she doesn't always recognize or even like.

"Eric has said that I carry close to my chest a ball of barbed wire that I sometimes throw at other people."

I found this really fascinating. Wang's narrator tells the story in the style of a person for whom English is not her first language, so at times the narrative is very spare and/or stilted, but the use of language and imagery really works here. The narrator doesn't come across as the warmest person, but Wang gives glimpses of her vulnerability and the emotion beneath the steely surface she has built to defend her from her parents and from those who don't believe women have a place in science.

Chemistry is definitely a quirky book that might not be for everyone. As she seeks to find answers to problems for which answers aren't always readily available, she is finding her way, with sometimes comical, sometimes emotional, and sometimes stoic results. She's a flawed character but one with surprising sensitivity, and you get to understand why she hides that away.

Don't let the title scare you. I got a "D" in high school chemistry (hope my mother doesn't read this) and vowed never to deal with that subject again, but I still found this a really compelling, beautifully told read.

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