Review: Chemistry

“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,” Weike Wang.

Chemistry by Weike Wang
211 pages
Genre: Fiction
Published by Vintage Contemporaries, 2017
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I hope to come back to this one in a few years.
Reviewed by Indiana

This book gave me an ab workout.

So many scenes had me laughing to the point where I would have to put the book down because my stomach hurt.

Told in halting narrative, Chemistry is the story of a PhD student who is on the verge of a perfect life, one that will make her Chinese parents proud (as proud as they can be anyway). Her work is going well and her boyfriend, Eric, is also successful, as well as kind, supportive, funny and loving. He’d like to marry her too.

But when he asks her, instead of feeling excited at the prospect of taking that next step, she feels a crushing ambivalence, not just about her relationship, but her work and like in general.

She tells Eric to ask her tomorrow. Understandably, he replies “It doesn’t work that way.”

Thus sets off an exploration of this unnamed protagonist’s life, both past and present. She was so successful in high school; after all her parents came here with nothing and her father at least was able to get his graduate degree. They expect nothing less from her. In fact, they expect more—”But such progress he’s made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.”

The protagonist’s friends all seem to be effortlessly successful, secure in their futures and in their desires for their futures. Eric and all her friends seem to be immune to this crushing pressure, both generational and psychological.

Eventually the protagonist stops striving toward her degree, stops going to lab altogether. Instead, she works on a different sort of chemistry; not in the lab but within herself.

Chemistry is a quick read, coming in at just over 200 pages, but each scene is packed with either hilarious observations or sarcasm or poignant thoughts.

Take these two for example:

“Eric has said that I carry close to my chest a ball of barbed wire that I sometimes throw at other people.”

“A joke: What do you do with a sick chemist?

Helium. Or curium. Or barium.”

Has anyone else read this one?

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