‘Chemistry’ by Weike Wang – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She’s tormented by her failed research–and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there’s another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can’t make a life before finding success on her own.

Eventually, the pressure mounts so high that she must leave everything she thought she knew about her future, and herself, behind. And for the first time, she’s confronted with a question she won’t find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want? Over the next two years, this winningly flawed, disarmingly insightful heroine learns the formulas and equations for a different kind of chemistry–one in which the reactions can’t be quantified, measured, and analyzed; one that can be studied only in the mysterious language of the heart. Taking us deep inside her scattered, searching mind, here is a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family.

My Review

I never know how to write reviews about the books that I love the most. The ones that reach into the deepest darkest parts of my soul and change me. I know that this book isn’t for everyone. The prose to me is nothing short of perfection but it is incredibly spartan. It’s non-traditional in its execution of plot, of timeline. It never truly resolves any aspect of the storyline but to me it’s all the more beautiful for that. It feels like a very honest snapshot of a life.

“A Chinese proverb predicts that for every man with great skill, there is a woman with great beauty. In ancient China, there are four great beauties: The first so beautiful that when fish see her reflection they forget how to swim and sink. The second so beautiful that birds forget how to fly and fall. The third so beautiful that the moon refuses to shine. The fourth so beautiful that flowers refuse to bloom. I find it interesting how often beauty is shown to make the objects around it feel worse. This proverb is said and resaid on the day of my parents’ wedding.”

The book has an unnamed female narrator who is a chemistry PhD student and it’s these studies that are the catalyst for this novel. Her research is failing, she’s struggling with her love for the subject and is battling insecurities surrounding her capabilities.

You certainly don’t have to have a background in scientific research to understand this book, you can read it with next to no scientific knowledge and will not be lost. But for those of us who have toiled in research this book cuts close to the bone. The plaguing doubts, the constant pressure to achieve, the isolation of when experiments fail while those around you succeed… This book lifts the lid on the day to day stresses of academic research…

Words can’t express how much I understood and was thoroughly moved by what I was reading about. Research is all I’ve ever wanted to do but due to health reasons it can’t be my path in life. Or at least not for the foreseeable future. I will always keep my hopes alive. But for an all too brief time it was my life and this book broke my heart because of that. Because in this book the unnamed narrator has to step back. She steps back for different reasons than I had to but I still felt it. I felt her story as if it were my own.

And that’s what’s wonderful about this book. The unnamed narrator is the most human character you could ever read about. She’s so honest. Brutally honest. She’s incredibly insecure. At times unlikeable even. She’s got a unique sense of humour and is plagued with guilt. Guilt stemming from a need to succeed and that need not coming to fruition.

“In Chinese, there is another phrase about love. It is not used for passionate love, but the love between family members. In translation, it means I heart for you.”

This need to succeed is seemingly tracked back to her rearing. She is the child of Chinese parents living in America. And their overzealous values on education and success haunt her to the extent that she can’t function without them. Her life is not her own. Everything she does is for her parents more than her. To the extent that her boyfriend can’t quite understand how she doesn’t just free herself from their shackles as she is a grown woman. And when he asks her to marry him things get even more confusing and the pressures and stresses of expectation build up even more on her.

“The moment we’re back in our old apartment, he asks the first question again. Say yes. I want to. He asks the second question. Come with me. I want to. Then say yes. Isn’t it enough that I want to?”

I guess you could say this is yet another of those books about a lost twenty something searching for the answers to life’s big questions. But to me this is so much more than that because of the authenticity of the unnamed narrator. How we get to live inside her brilliant mind; how she is hopelessly flawed with her approach to everyday life and yet is deeply incisive about the greater questions of life.

I love this character with all my heart. And thusly I love this book with every fibre of my being. When I stumbled across the blurb for it many months before its release I was optimistic that it would be a book that I would find enjoyable. The blurb spoke to me and I had to go to a lot of effort to track down a copy including spending A LOT more money than I would ever normally spend on a book especially one that I hadn’t read reviews of or knew anything about the author. And now I am so glad that I spent that time and effort locating a copy of this. I would urge anyone with a love for intelligent and quirky literary fiction to locate a copy of this for themselves. I have a hardback edition but the paperback is due sometime in the spring.

An utterly brilliant debut worth every one of its five stars

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8 thoughts on “‘Chemistry’ by Weike Wang – Book Review

  1. Such a great heartfelt review Emer! I didn’t have a clue what to expect when I picked up Chemistry, I honestly didn’t think I’d love it but I was pleasantly surprised. Such a great read! Your review makes me want to pick this up to read it again 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ❤ I loooved this book for many of the same reasons. Especially the parts where she talks about loving chemistry but it doesn't love her back. MY HEART.
    Great review. You definitely captured the feelings of this beautiful book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lauren! I adore this book. I mean there’s just so much truth and honesty in it. It’s definitely one of the most soul baringly beautiful books I’ve ever read. At times it really felt like the book was talking about me! Gosh I wish more people had read it

      Liked by 1 person

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