Chemistry by Weike Wang


My Review:

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved this book titled Chemistry! Author Weike Wang’s unnamed narrator, a Chinese-American Ph.d. student, lives with her redheaded boyfriend behind her traditional parents’ backs.  Despite the high expectations for their daughter to become a chemist, she is unable to be successful in her research, losing interest in her male dominated field and having difficulty making decisions regarding her career and her relationship.  The boyfriend proposed but she is just not feeling it enough to say yes, yet she doesn’t immediately say no.  Caught in ambiguity, with nonscientific questions of the heart on her mind, and confusion about her future hanging in the balance, she searches inside herself to understand who she is, flaws and all, and how she fits in.  Like an unsolved scientific problem, she may not be able to solve it and may choose to just ruminate. “Being in limbo doesn’t preclude us from sharing nice meals. In limbo, we still have to eat.”

The narrator states that her vision is poor, and everything about her, her parents and her acne for example, seems worse than others.  This, for me is a metaphor portraying how self conscious she is; a harsh judge of herself, while looking at others through a softer veil of judgement. Overwhelmed with her own situation, she shows little emotion to the outside world.  Her approach to life is scientific, and a bit negative. “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 in gaseous, both of which are probably poisonous.” She is a realist, guided by proven fact and less by emotion and feelings; her life teeters back and forth while she is looking for a balance.  “The only difference between a poison and a cure is dosage”.  She searches for happiness and presents to the reader how she feels about it with an equation:

“Happiness = reality- expectations.

If reality is > expectations, then you are happy.

If reality is < expectations, then you are not.

Hence the lower your expectations, the happier you will be.”

Wang is a minimalist when it comes to verbiage; like a mathematical equation with no directions, she says only what is imperative, no flowery language or description but with an added touch of humor.  It is up to the reader to read into the meaning of what is presented; her metaphors are fantastic food for thought when it comes to understanding the main character and her journey.

Written without names, the narrator could be anyone; an anonymous person in the midst of the struggles of life.  I loved all the science references,metaphorical situations, and found this book most enjoyable. Chemistry is short but worthy of spending the time to read thoughtfully.  It is satisfying in so many ways; a must read this summer with a unique style, thought provoking, heartbreaking and funny!

As seen on 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.


About the author:

WEIKE WANG is a graduate of Harvard University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry and her doctorate in public health. She received her MFA from Boston University. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Alaska Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The Journal, Ploughshares, Redivider, and SmokeLong Quarterly.




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