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Summer 2017 Reads
Chemistry by Weike Wang

  My sixth summer 2017 read is the new novel Chemistry by Weike Wang.


  The author’s first book (though not her first published work), the narrative tells the story of a chemistry PhD student suffering a series of setbacks and how she struggles to cope with it all. Starting with her frustrations with (and eventual expulsion from) school, the narrator’s approach with many of life’s frustrations is to examine each new event with either earlier moments in her life as an immigrant or using a related scientific phenomenon. While it may not seem like this is a situation ripe with humor, the character’s bleak outlook and sarcasm make for surprising levity.

  The book is a fun, quick read. Since this is a first-person narrative, we spent all of our time with the protagonist. Though we end up getting the most flesh-out understanding of her as a person, others are treated with a fair amount of detail. That is to say, through their interactions and the incidents and past anecdotes the main character tell us, we do get a pretty good understanding of who they are and the why’s behind the relationships with our narrator. Even the way she refers to others—my mother, the best friend, the math student—reveals a certain unease with social graces. We are strangers to our protagonist, and so we, too, are kept at arm’s length.

  The biggest problem with the book comes from the only named character, Eric, the protagonist’s boyfriend. While the narrator gives us her mother’s anglicized name (Joy), for whatever reason Eric gets the deference of being referred by his name rather than ‘the boyfriend’ or, as I would, ‘that stupid asshole’. The book starts with his proposal and, given a ‘let me think on it’ response, then spends much of his page-time mewling like a wounded animal about whether or not the protagonist has made a decision. When not reminding her of his wounded ego (during, I remind you, a series of significant life setbacks), he takes to insidiously poking and prodding her to make her into someone she’s not.

  And while these kind of jerks are present in literature, I was waiting for a revelation on the part of the main character that never came. Eric was too often given the benefit of the doubt, too often allowed to be the passive aggressive dick without really being confronted about it. Maybe that was the point, but it still left me feeling annoyed at his jerkassiness. I feel that there is at least a slight responsibility to discuss these things in the text, especially because his dickishness is rationalized away as ‘attentiveness’ and ‘devotion’ rather than the manipulation that it is.

  If you are in the mood for a well-written, funny, and introspective exploration of the life of an immigrant trying to navigate academia and what-comes-beyond, then this is a fantastic read.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.


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