by Weike Wang
Published 2017 by Knopf
$24.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524731748
By Noah Sanders
At face value, Weike Wang’s Chemistry could be very well one of “those books”—the quirky, style-over-substance variety that reads well, but evaporates like an errant sugar high moments after consumption. In the early goings, Wang’s narrator—a failed Chemistry PhD on the edge, and in the midst, of a mental breakdown—reads like the epitome of urban cuteness. A first-generation Chinese-immigrant, she approaches her world—Boston—and her small group of friends, with a worldview that’s almost perfectly off-center. Her pithy explanations of basic scientific theories become her primary way of understanding her interactions with her co-workers, students and friends. In the opening portions of the book, Chemistry rests neatly on the line between engaging beach-read and idiosyncratic character study. Wang’s clipped sentences are both engaging and often times amusing, drawing the reader in to what could be vacuous fun, but when she’s got you hooked, she springs the trap. Though framed in an enjoyable and easily digestible style, Chemistry is not only a fascinating character study, but also a deep dive into the legacies our families leave us and what it takes to come to grips with them.
As Chemistry starts, Wang’s nameless narrator’s life is, in her view, spinning out of control. She’s realized that the science experiment that will make or break her PhD candidacy is never going to come to fruition and her scientist boyfriend, Eric, has left her, and their dog, when she’s unable to commit to a married life together. Without the columns of science and Eric to support her, Wang’s narrator is forced to analyze her own existence—past, present and future. Wang bounces between the different time periods with ease, incorporating the narrator’s memories of her time with Eric along with her time in the lab and her childhood with two aloof and verbally abusive parents seamlessly. The book never breaks from its eccentric styles and the plot is never dragged down by weighty exposition. As the book gets closer and closer to the end, and as the narrator starts to pull apart her own life with the help of cuckolded best friend and a therapist, the reader is drawn closer and closer to the truth in ever-tightening spirals.
The reader experiences the small, but heart-breaking revelations about the narrator’s family and the long reach of her upbringing in what feels like real time. Like atoms ricocheting off into the great unknown, each small, peculiar moment—an interaction with a student, a walk with her dog, a bike ride in the frigid Boston winter—sends the narrator down into a previously unexplored universe of self, which in turn pulls her down into another, on and on, until the layers of discovery cross time and space.
This is a book at its big beating heart about family, and the way we are defined by our mundane histories, and the narrator’s act of exploration into her own past becomes centered on her mom and dad and their relationship with her and each other. When we first encounter her father and mother, they are typical pushy immigrant parents—her father a self-educated tyrant, her mother a dramatic primadonna prone to throwing things—but Wang dips back into their back stories as well, slowly stitching their past with the narrator’s past before showcasing the marks they intentionally and unintentionally left upon their daughter. The descriptions of the narrator’s interaction with her family are some of the most keenly observed in a book full of amazing observation, but Wang, a talent everyone should keep an eye on, through the eyes of her narrator, lets us see the arc of time, how one event or action or way of thinking continues on down the line, shaping the people we become.
What’s most impressive about Chemistry though is how it’s always an enjoyable, buoyant read. As dark as this book gets, Wang never the flighty and over-analytical way her narrator thinks and speaks. You can flip to any page in Chemistry and find not only a quotable line, but one that begs to be dissected further, all of them imbued with an off-kilter, often times hilarious, wisdom. “There is no such thing as a perfectly still molecule,” the narrator says, “Even in solids, the molecules keep moving.” Or, “I find it interesting how often beauty is shown to make objects around it feel worse.” The quickness of thought on display is marvelous, and it grabs the reader upfront and pulls them, with haste, into the life of this bizarre, fascinating, in the end, wonderful character.
Wang’s debut novel is a remarkable piece of fiction. It is the rare combination of original style and original thought that doesn’t get bogged down in either. The author is able to evade the pitfalls of quirkiness, instead using it to her advantage in crafting a character that exists on her own plane of uniqueness. If Wang stopped there, this would be still be a book to devour, but she doesn’t. The oddball stylings of her narrator become the fuel to power a book, and a character, that reflects soulfully on the triumphs and travesties of our childhoods. And in doing so, Wang has written one of the best books of the year so far.