Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang
(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)
Tech rating (out of 5):
Publication date: May 2017
Category: LabLit; women’s fiction
Summary (from the publisher):
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 was halfway through Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang when it hit me: this is NOT a memoir.
The voice in Chemistry is so compelling that I thought I was inside a real person’s story. I was relieved to remember this is fiction, partly because I pitied the parents reading about themselves in this light, and partly because I recently read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and I was starting to wonder if all women in science are mentally ill.
No, they definitely are not, but maybe all writers are.
Anyway, Chemistry is a work of literary fiction, not genre or thriller, and is driven by character instead of plot. Thriller fans at this blog might not care for it. But I found this slender book hypnotic and read it in two sittings. Is it because like the nameless main character, I have been a graduate student in a high-powered university science lab? Is it because I married into Chinese culture and have a fascination with the tiger mom stereotype? These elements helped, but I think Chemistry has an appeal that goes far beyond that.
This is a deeply introspective novel. The narrator is emotionally flawed and aware of her flaws. She’s brilliant yet foolish, an achiever who sees failure in her life. She is coming of age but afraid of true adulthood. She wants to be happy but doesn’t know what happiness looks like. To quote from blurbs on the back cover, “How do we learn to love if we haven’t been taught?” About the voice: “by turns deadpan and despairing, wry and wrenching” “unflinching and painfully self-aware” “insight and charm.”
I approached this book with trepidation, worried that it would be another whiney millennial voice. That a sense of entitlement and precociousness would sour the whole thing. Not the case. The narrator is clearly messed up (hence the psychiatry visits), but she is the opposite of a whiner. Her pain doesn’t make her lash out at the world. She beats herself up instead. (Her lovingly portrayed dog helps!)
Science–trivia, history, culture–permeates the book. Science-y interjections pop up on almost every page. Some readers may find them too abstruse, unrelated to the surrounding text. I did occasionally, but I never felt the author crossed the line into pretension.
Chemistry definitely has a lot in common with Lab Girl. Fiction vs memoir. Chemistry vs botany. While the botany essays in Lab Girl can’t be topped, overall I enjoyed this book much more. The brief length, which perfectly suits the subject matter, helped.
Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang is an elegantly written, sensitive work of literary fiction in the LabLit genre. If you read a lot of science thrillers and are willing to try something different, I recommend this book.
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If you like Chemistry, you might enjoy: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren