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Book Review: Chemistry by Weike Wang

28 Aug

If you didn’t read my post about my visit to Elliott Bay Book Company, you probably missed my connection to this book. To summarize, I swam with Weike in high school. We went to different schools but her school did not have a swim team and she swam at my school instead. I came across this book randomly while on vacation and have been able to reconnect with her online and I’m so excited to start talking about the book!

Cover image via Goodreads

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

It was hard for me not to picture Weike as the narrator of this book. I knew her as the smart and funny girl on the team who made us all laugh and would never give up. I kept picturing the narrator as a girl with hair up in a sloppy, wet bun with goggle rings around her eyes. If asked, that’s the narrator I pictured, fresh out of the pool. But in reality, I know the narrator of this book isn’t the Weike I knew in high school. Her story, whatever it may be, is not in these pages. That was the biggest struggle I had. Having not spoken to her since 2006, this could be her for all I know. But then it would be an autobiography and real life doesn’t tie up nicely at the end.

I love the plotline that was created for the narrator. Like so many, she thinks she knows her path to happiness and is following it, only to have something change that path. What it is, we’re a bit unsure in this novel. She has a breakdown and everything that made her feel safe falls away. I like how her family background played into this. She has to hide her disappointment and her desire for a change. Really, it’s only her best friend who 100% supports her. I liked this character a lot. I liked that she was sarcastic and loving and hurt. It made the narrator’s reactions seem almost intensified. She’s going through something that started one day in the lab while the best friend had a traumatic thing happen in her life and the two women have to help each other out of ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is.

I liked the narrator. The way she told her story jumped around but I enjoyed hearing about the things she was reminded of as she went through life. She thought back to her mother, the things her father said to her growing up, and sayings and advice she’d heard. I think it’s really realistic of how my brain works and I was relieved that there might be someone out there who feels the same way I do.

There are times I’ve wanted to give up like the narrator did. I’ve had times when something, even something I excel in, seems to overwhelm me and makes me want to give it all up and crawl into a hole. I completely understood the narrator’s break and desire to get away from chemistry. I wanted to do the same during my education and seriously considered how much I could leverage 2.5 years of a business and Spanish degree. I had my mother and (now) husband talk me back into school a few times.

Weike Wang
Image via The New York Times

I liked the part about the math student. That felt very real to me. She was debating moving on and meeting someone who was also moving on seemed tempting. I liked that she experienced that and I think what she took away from it was really eye-opening. I think seeing something different can always make a person appreciate what he has.

There wasn’t anything major I disliked about this book. I was frustrated by the best friend’s situation but I didn’t dislike it. I guess not understanding what led the narrator to her breakdown in the first place was the most frustrating. I didn’t sympathize with her as much because there wasn’t a ton building to that point.

Sometimes we have to fall apart to begin again. The book ended with a lot of hope. I had hope that things would work out well for the narrator and that she had her life more together than she thought. I hoped that she would find something to make her happy again, something that would give her the drive and purpose she’d been lacking for so much of the book.

Writer’s Takeaway: I liked the format of this book. With no chapters, I kept telling myself I could read just a bit more and would end up stopping 10 pages later. It was engaging and even though the snapshots were short, they still gave me a lot in each one. I liked fast references to family advice as much as I liked the main plot. It was a fun style to read.

Overall, a short compelling read. I liked the first-generation experience in the book because it was something new to me. Five out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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