CHEMISTRY by Weike Wang lays out an intimate portrait of an Asian-American narrator who’s at a daunting crossroads in life. In a nutshell, she’s pursuing a doctorate at a university in Boston but, despite years of hard work, she’s unable to achieve any results. Her boyfriend’s career in science has taken off without any glitches, and to top it all, she faces grew up facing overwhelming parental pressure to thrive in academics. Her identity develops within the limiting framework of that pressure – who is she if not a scientist? The pressure acts as a catalyst for the assault of her looming depression that we see unfolding in CHEMISTRY.
I’d been wanting to read the book ever since I got a whiff of it on social media, so when the publisher sent me a copy I literally squealed with delight and decided to make it my next read. Lo and behold the day came and I sat down to immerse myself in the story. Immediately the opening passages caught my interest and I couldn’t stop reading. At about a quarter of my way in I realized I actually hadn’t paid attention to one detail; Wang had kept the character’s name a secret. It truly stuns me to think that sometimes it really doesn’t matter what a person is called, their story can be so resonating or impactful that you feel you know them and understand their agony.
The novel begins with Wang’s narrator’s turmoil over her boyfriend’s proposal. She’s doing poorly at her doctorate research, the academic pressure doesn’t help her case, and her boyfriend doesn’t understand why she can’t accept that maybe Chemistry isn’t her thing at all. Saying yes to him means making the decision to choose love over a career as a scientist (or rather admitting defeat and finding sustenance in something else). It’s this big question that drives Wang’s narrator towards a breaking point that changes everything. Since the moment of the panicked incident the narrator begins to question the position she’s in – and it becomes a glaring identity crisis, impossible to ignore.
From my reading, I understood that the major factor behind her falling apart is the parental pressure she feels. It was interesting to see the character recognize that pressure while trying to reconciliate her current life with the ideal image her parents (especially her mother) had painted for her. We also see how the achievements of parents and their struggles play into the life of their child. In this thread of the novel, the narrator recalls cultural anecdotes relayed to her by her mother. This include a really striking instance when her mother says it’s better to have shorter hair because it doesn’t waste nutrients and they are instead directed to the brain, hence making a woman smarter. With this in mind, minor spoiler alert, in a particularly poignant section, the Wang’s narrator chops off her hair — this is her desperate attempt to become smarter so she can overcome the difficulty of her doctorate and achieve the results that her parents and professor are waiting for.
The writing style is, what I’d like to call, scientifically poetic. The novel is abundant with science-y anecdotes that often act as metaphors for life. Take this paragraph as an example:
“That night, I lie with one cheek on his bare chest. I listen to heart sounds, the ones of valves opening and closing as blood goes from atrium to ventricle, ventricle to arteries, and back around. The circulatory system is a closed system, which means nothing goes in and nothing comes out.
The first rule of chem lab is to never heat a closed system or it will explode.”
The writing style is also very concise and often fragmentary. The sparse language, particularly the fragments, lends an emotional distance to the prose – I think this also reflects the narrator’s deadpan attitude and self-deprecation. CHEMISTRY has a light plot, and this was one of the things that I was initially disappointed by, but I do understand how having a lighter plot allowed for better focus on the mental unhinging of the character. She becomes distrustful, resentful, hurtful and depressed – so to see a brief flash of tenderness towards the end is rewarding.
This isn’t yet another story of disintegrating mental health in which you hope the protagonist calls for help before it’s too late. It’s a cautionary tale of parental pressure to excel in academics and the pressures in an academic setting that cause a person to fracture inside. Particularly, this novel will resonate with anyone who has ever felt that without really good grades their parents will hate them or even disown them. Or if you’ve ever felt that you had no option other than to become a doctor or engineer, then this novel will be a remarkable experience for you. I personally feel that it’s a chronic issue that’s faced by millions of kids around the world, and I see it in my own community. All too often I see relatives or even my own parents value a degree in medicine or engineering as more valuable and respectable than an arts degree in literature or even language. This misconception perpetrates a low regard for some of the most important fields that are driving our world towards the future. It pains me to think of all the young kids who feel pressurized enough to take up a major they had no interest.
With just over 200 pages packed in a small hardcover, CHEMISTRY by Weiki Wang is a quick read. If you’re reading the book, expect an emotionally fraught novel with a complicated character who is often unlikeable. The emotional depth that the narrative moved towards packed a punch that made me feel distress for the protagonist.
Disclaimer: The publisher sent me a copy of the book in exchange of an honest review.