Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Chemistry: A Novel

by Weike Wang

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She's tormented by her failed research--and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. 

But there's another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can't make a life before finding success on her own. Eventually, the pressure mounts so high that she must leave everything she thought she knew about her future, and herself, behind. And for the first time, she's confronted with a question she won't find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want? 

Over the next two years, this winningly flawed, disarmingly insightful heroine learns the formulas and equations for a different kind of chemistry--one in which the reactions can't be quantified, measured, and analyzed; one that can be studied only in the mysterious language of the heart. Taking us deep inside her scattered, searching mind, here is a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family.

*****

I really enjoyed this book, even though it felt very much like a kick to the gut. This book had everything I generally want in a novel: relatability; short, concise chapters; flawed, but not entirely horrid characters.

The nameless protagonist of this story is a chemist, working on her PhD at a Boston university (I assumed Harvard, but I could be wrong as it's never explicitly stated). Her work is not as fruitful as she would like; her advisor is breathing down her neck to finish up; her parents put ungodly pressure on her -- at one point saying "You're nothing to me without that degree," and to top it all off, her (wonderful, also a chemist) boyfriend, is a huge success at all that he does. She's floundering on the brink of a breakdown.

I loved the story of this book, because I just understood it so clearly. The main character (much like myself, and many others I have known), has had the same plan for her life for as long as she can remember. She puts everything she has into seeing her plan through, and it still doesn't seem to be working out. Once this happens, she's completely lost in life. Her reaction to this situation is much different than mine was; I think that everyone experiences things differently - however, I completely understood her sentiment and struggle. 

Conversely, her best friend lives in NYC. The best friend's life has gone according to plan exactly, but still, she suffers through her own dilemmas and struggles. I appreciated this parallel account (still told by the main character), because it just goes to show, roadblocks pop up, no matter the preparation level.

On a technical level, I liked the way this book was written. It's chapter-less, but has many section breaks, making it easy to read as much or as little as you would like. The book as a whole is short - it only took me two days to read. The writing isn't necessarily lyrical, but it's simple and straight-forward, which fits with the book's vibe. 

I recommend this one if you're looking for something quick, witty and intelligent. 

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Buy this book here.

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