Published recently, Chemistry is the novel of a young Chinese American woman who after years of study and being in academia finds her life in sudden free fall. I picked this book up because I mean, women in science, but also that it was recommended for fans of Lab Girl (which I loved). However this was not the sweet and quirky homage to science that I was expecting (just look at the cover!): it was something much deeper and broken than that.
“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.”
The narrator (who remains unnamed) is a disaffected 20-something year old who finds one day that she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. After a lifetime of being pressured to succeed by her immigrant parents, confronted with a proposal from her long-term boyfriend, and combating sexism in her lab, the woman is not sure what her next step should be. This novel explores that vacuum in her life, and the events that led her there with a revolving cast of family and friends.
The book was relatively short (200 pages), but was filled with such dense material it felt longer. The writing style reflects the narrator’s mind: scattered and darting, with her reflections never landing on one thought for long. There were a lot of flashbacks in this book, and the tangents made it difficult to keep the timeline straight. While I found the woman dislikable from the start (typical millennial who can’t make up her mind), I grew in compassion as the novel went on, though I don’t think we could be friends in real life. And maybe that is the appeal of Wang’s book; it is a portrait of humanity: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this book Wang leaves it all on the table, and there is something refreshing within that.
This novel is a cautionary tale: for parents not to push their children too hard, and for everyone not to be too hard on themselves (in school, in relationships, in life). Sometimes dreams don’t plan out the way you wish they would: and that is ok. There is no hero in this book, and the ending is not tied up in a pretty bow (there are some loose strings), but isn’t that life? While this book was a departure from my usual selections, I was happy to get outside my comfort zone.
If you are looking for an edgy read (which looks like it’s shaping up to be a big hit this Summer), then Chemistry might be for you.
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