Book Review: Chemistry

Chemistry tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose life, from a distance, would appear to be going really well: she is a Ph.D. student in a prestigious chemistry program, and her longterm boyfriend (who is also a chemist) has proposed to her. But her laboratory experiments aren’t going well and she doesn’t feel ready for marriage. All of this pressure – plus the pressure her parents have placed on her from an early age to succeed – causes the protagonist to panic and break down, and then to reevaluate her life as she slowly picks herself back up.

The book: Chemistry by Weike Wang
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Chemistry was such an immersive and wonderfully emotional read. Wang’s unnamed protagonist is so well-developed that I really felt her pain of feeling inadequate and lost in life. At the same time, I found it frustrating and distressing to watch the narrator make one questionable decision after another – I so badly wanted her to make different choices and take better care of herself! The way the protagonist simultaneously evoked frustration and tenderness in me is a testament to Wang’s razor-sharp writing.

I also really enjoyed the writing style and structure in Chemistry. The story is told as a somewhat disjointed collection of the narrator’s thoughts, experiences, and memories. While this might sound like a disorganized or chaotic reading experience, there is a remarkable consistency and flow to the narrator’s voice. The result is that all of the story’s fragments come together beautifully to illustrate a wonderfully complex and compelling character.

On the topic of the novel’s structure, I also want to mention that it doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc. Chemistry‘s protagonist slowly breaks down and (even more slowly) tries to find herself and, just as journeys of self-discovery go in real-life, there is no perfect resolution to her journey. The end of this book actually snuck up on me because of that; I had naively assumed that the story would resolve conclusively, and wasn’t expecting it to end in the somewhat anticlimactic way that it did. While anticlimactic, though, the way the story wrapped up was also hopeful and realistic.

In addition to being evocative and compelling, Chemistry is also full of fantastic commentary. Wang touches upon the insane demands of graduate school that inevitably lead people to break down, as well as the unique challenges faced by first-generation Asian Americans. While all of the commentary was excellent, I was particularly touched by Wang’s portrayal of being caught in between two different cultures – one individualistic and one more community-focused – and feeling like you don’t quite belong to either of them.

Note: I live in the greater Boston area, so the next paragraph is very much influenced by my personal biases.

My only critique of Chemistry is that I wanted more from the setting! Wang sets the novel in Boston, but aside from mentioning a few Boston landmarks (and I use the word mentioning very intentionally; she does not describe these landmarks in much detail, not even the Arnold Arboretum in the Fall), there is not much that gives the story a distinct setting. And yet…I have to acknowledge that despite the lacking setting, I still found Chemistry to be a completely captivating read because the narrator’s internal experience was so immersive.

Overall, I loved and highly recommend Chemistry. There were so many things about this novel that don’t normally work for me, but the novel was SO well-written and the protagonist so realistically compelling, that I found myself completely immersed in the story. I tend not to reread books, but I would reread this one for the experience of feeling so absorbed in the main character’s mind.