Chemistry, by Weike Wang (2017)

Contemporary Fiction
Adult
Chemistry, by Weike WangMy work at UBC included time advising graduate students, a small number of whom were pursuing PhDs. I can attest they are (obvs) brilliant, thoughtful, and dedicated to their research. Frequently they are also full of self-doubt, exhausted, and terrified of what the future will bring (or not, in the case of tenured job prospects). This book is a tragi-comedie about the struggle and breakdown of one PhD student at a Boston university. You’d think humour would be scarce in a story of a mental breakdown, but Wang finds plenty of ways to make the reader burst out laughing. Told in the first person, the story has only one named character – Eric, who like our protagonist, is completing a PhD in chemistry. Eric and our heroine live together. His research is productive, his dissertation is progressing well, and in fact he is applying for jobs in academia. Our protagonist – not so much. Her research is going nowhere, she is falling out of favour with her advisor, and she hasn’t even told her Asian parents she is living with a man. We learn her parents immigrated from China to America when her father came here to pursue a PhD in engineering. He is a stern and demanding father, and her beautiful mother is deeply unhappy in the U.S., struggling to master English while desperately missing her family in Shanghai. Not surprisingly, her childhood was one of abuse and neglect. This contrasts with Eric’s childhood of love, encouragement and acceptance. Eric asks her to marry him. She declines. He keeps asking, and she keeps fending him off. When Eric gets a job offer in Ohio and still she declines his proposal, he leaves without her. In the lab, she starts shattering beakers, resulting in a medical leave. My description sounds terribly depressing, but this is a story told with great humour that only emphasizes her pain. “In Arizona a PhD advisor dies. Authorities blame the grad student who shot him, but grad students around the world blame the advisor.” See what I mean? Funny as hell, but also so tragic. Our narrator is left with an ill-behaved goldendoodle, and slowly finds a way to regain perspective, with the help of the dog, a pregnant best friend who is also a medical doctor, a therapist, and several students she tutors in a bid to earn some money. Poignant, funny, and heart-rendingly truthful. Wang uses chemistry as a metaphor throughout the story (catalysts, reactions, energy, meiosis, pressure); it would help to know more chemistry than I do, but it doesn’t stop the science neophyte from enjoying this short (225 pages) and rewarding first novel.
More discussion and reviews of this novel: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31684925
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