I first heard of this book through a friend, who also happens to be friends with the author. After reading the blurb I reached out to the publisher for a copy and here I am.* It of course didn’t hurt that the book was set here in Boston at an unnamed University and I’ve started to see it everywhere around the city either!
Chemistry is the tale of an unnamed narrator and her exit from the academic world that has ruled her life and her various reactions to things going on in her world. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s what I boiled it down to. I’m still mulling over many parts of the book, particularly the “conclusion,” but in general I found this to be a wonderfully engaging read.
First, let’s talk about Boston. I mean we all know I love this city, even with its faults (DAMN T!), but to read about the city in a book with not only references to places I know, but weather patterns, OMG yes!
“The city has made the record books. February sees the most snowfall in a century. On every news channel, there is a montage of miserable people shoveling snow but happy kids because school has been canceled for weeks.
Some people have taken to bottling the snow and sending it to California residents who are in desperate need of water. When asked how much of the snow removal budget we have gone through, the mayor just says, Thank god it is March.” (178)
I’m pretty sure the unnamed narrator is referring to the same year that this happened (to the right). That is me on a pile of snow taller than a street light. That winter (2014-2015) was RIDICULOUS and I remember the mayor making that comment AND I remember when the snow finally melted at the last snow farm in JUNE (NPR.org link). [A snow farm is where they take all the snow that can’t go anywhere else because the streets are already too full and the drifts can only get so high. Usually it’s an abandoned lot or an unused industrial area.]
Second, let’s talk about the narrator. I’m torn on whether I liked her and this is partially due to Wang’s style. I’m still trying to determine whether the narrator’s voice and thus the text was a result of her being an immigrant (she moved to the US when she was very young) and having spoken Chinese first, or if it is a result of an underlying developmental disorder like Asperger’s. Either way she was really awkward which I identified with, but also found to be incredibly frustrating. Her interactions with the other characters, again we only have this through her eyes, are often stilted and feel limited. Some of this comes from the above questions about why she talks/thinks the way she does, but some of it also comes down to Wang’s choice not to use quotation marks to differentiate dialogue. This wasn’t as much of a detraction as it has been in many other books I’ve read, but it still took some getting used to. This being said, Wang’s writing and her unnamed character reminded me of this beautiful video by Harry Shum Jr. about being different:
And finally, the other random things I enjoyed. I really found Wang’s writing to be easy to read and it wasn’t too heavy-handed like a lot of debut authors are. She never over-described and she definitely didn’t have too many characters. She also did a great job of balancing the super-nerdy science references with super-nerdy pop-culture references which makes the book relatable on so many levels. She also mentions the four great Chinese novels
- Water Margin – Shi Nai’an
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Luo Guanzhong
- Journey to the West – Wu Cheng’en
- Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao Xueqin
which was awesome for me at least, because I still haven’t read Dream of the Red Chamber for my Classics Club list and after spending two weeks in China last year I want to read more of their classic literature. Wikipedia also lists The Plum in the Golden Vase by Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng and The Scholars by Wu Jingzi as two novels that are often mentioned with the above four.
The only thing that I didn’t like, or I’m still not sure if I liked, was the ending of the novel. Perhaps I need to go back and re-read it, but it felt like there were too many things left unsaid or unresolved. They may have been resolved or they may have been lumped in with the “moving on with your life” type theme, but it wasn’t as explicit as a “and they all lived happily ever after.” I’m not saying the novel needs this because it was definitely strong enough on its own, I’m just wondering if I missed something that would’ve made it even better for me.
Recommendation: Definitely a READ IT! It was a wonderful debut novel with a unique perspective. I also really appreciated that it shined the light on the cut throat world of academics and what many grad students go through to get their doctorate. It doesn’t hurt that it’s set in recent Boston.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for my honest opinion, no additional goods or money were exchanged.
Opening Line: “The boy asks the girl a question.”
Closing Line: “Eric, I am writing you a short note. I am asking: Would you ever consider coming back and visiting for a little while, just as a friend?“ (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)