I read Chemistry (2017) by Weike Wang for my book club. It is a short, unique book about a young, Chinese-American woman trying to earn her P.h.D. in Chemistry. Her loving boyfriend wants to marry her, but she isn’t so sure. The stress of the chemistry lab is getting to her, the pressure from her parents is getting to her, and she has no idea what she really wants.
Wang has a very unique voice. Instead of names and genders of characters, it is always: “the boy, the girl, the friend.” I found it distancing, and it kept me from getting too close to any of the characters. However, one of my book club friends, who is also Chinese-American, said it fit with Mandarin and how her grandparents would have described people. Even in the book, Wang states, “In spoken Chinese, everything is gender neutral. There is no she or he. The more I think about this now, the more I like this about the language. Man or woman? Does it matter? A person.”
I found this book slow and meditative, and frankly depressing. I thought it fascinating that another woman in my book club thought it was funny. And there were jokes and science puns sprinkled throughout, but those didn’t change the main tone for me. The poor woman is having a mental breakdown, her parents are demanding even more of her, and her boyfriend isn’t even close to understanding her. Then her friend, who somehow manages to have a career and a family, and is perhaps an example of what life could be like, has her heart broken by her husband who cheats on her with his secretary.
I am impressed by how real and raw this book felt, but I’m glad it was short because I did not have much fun reading it.
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one. Not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
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