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Summer 2017 Reads
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

  For my eighth summer 2017 read, I delved into Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.

Goodbye, Vitamin
I don't mean to look however it is that I'm looking. Unless you like it. Then it was intended.

  The story follows Ruth, who returns home to help her mother take care of her father who is succumbing to dementia. Her father, a proud man, is resistant to help and spends his time locked in his study. To make matters even more complicated, the home life of her mother and father has been anything but smooth since she left for college, leaving emotional landmines that our protagonist has little choice but to trip in order to make heads or tails of the situation. Navigating the return home and its accompanying hazards isn’t the only point of the novel, as Ruth must also deal with the fallout from her fiancé leaving her and a potential new suitor, both as her father’s condition continues to worsen.

  Despite the potentially bleak way I summarized the story, Goodbye, Vitamin is a pretty uplifting and funny novel. Khong has a knack for finding joy in the banal and squeezing humor out of the absurd. There is a panoply of emotional moments, ranging from the tear-jerking to the frightening to the infuriating, and most scenes work to be as complicated as the human experience is. This is helped tremendously by the book’s briskness coupled with the protagonist’s personality, both of which work to create a kind of whirlwind experience. Unfortunately, this also works to the book’s detriment; after reading, I felt that the year we spent with Ruth was too rushed.

  The sentimental flourishes throughout the book are tremendously beautiful. One particular rhetorical trick along these lines is her father’s notebook, wherein he charted Ruth’s progress to adulthood. In these moments, you see a father who adores but is puzzled by his child. In her initial responses to discovering these passages, we see a daughter who wants to see her father as perfect and struggles to reconcile that with the reality. In the later stages of the book, when her father forgets more and more, Ruth adopts this narrative style in order to document her father’s activities. In a less qualified author’s hands, this may have appeared forced or flat. Here, though, Khong achieves a peculiar, tragic beauty in watching and caring for a loved one.

  In what is becoming a pattern in my fiction reading this summer, the main character’s fiancé is a douchebag by just about every metric. The fact that he is a nominal presence that the protagonist seems to tolerate is probably the weakest point, if only because he doesn’t deserve the paltry moments she cedes to him. One particularly obnoxious example is when, out of the blue, he calls Ruth to talk about knocking up the woman he left her for; the fact that she fielded the call, let alone allayed his fears, feels like an effort to make Ruth above it all when anger would have been more appropriate and, indeed, warranted.

  This is probably the most egregious example of the most unfortunate aspect of Ruth—that she largely lets men set the boundaries of the experience. Whether it’s her father, her ex-intended, or the new love interest, Ruth seems to be at the whims of the men in her life. Of all the characters in the novel, it is really only her father who gets to be complicated; much of Ruth’s arc (and her mother’s) is spent learning how to respond to the revelations of his past. The quickness of the narrative doesn’t help this, and it would have been to the novel’s benefit to have Ruth investigate this phenomenon a little more closely. Even as I write this out, Ruth’s saintliness toward her ex suggests an intended moral lesson that women are to endure men’s dumbassery, even as it upends their lives.

  I may be peering too far into things, but there you go.

  Memory is one of those things that I feel is incredibly precious. As such, I thought that this book would terrify me. Instead, I found a beautiful book that found joy and strength in an enduring tragedy. There are some questionable larger issues that plop out of the story, but otherwise Goodbye, Vitamin is good companion on a lazy afternoon.

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

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