Review: Chemistry

Weike Wang's beguiling first novel, Chemistry, opens with a marriage proposal from the narrator's attentive boyfriend, Eric: "Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says, that's not how this works." They met in a prestigious chemistry Ph.D. program in Boston. Eric is focused and insightful, leading his lab team to success; the narrator's best efforts fail and fail again. The only child of driven, judgmental Chinese immigrants who settled in Detroit with nothing, she isn't allowed to fail. Frustrated to the point of anguish, she smashes her lab beakers and exits the program. So begins the funny, idiosyncratic story of a young woman with big brains, big family baggage and a wonderfully fresh voice sorting out a world of science, language, dogs, counseling therapy, a BFF and her baby, SAT tutoring, Boston weather, cases of wine, TV cooking shows--and piecing together the right chemistry in her life. But life's not a laboratory: "The circulatory system is a closed system, which means nothing goes in and nothing comes out. The first rule of chem lab is never heat a closed system or it will explode."

With an undergraduate chemistry degree and a public health Ph.D. underway, Wang has no lack of over-bleached lab coats in her closet. Her narrator spices her daily ups and downs with a little bit of science here, a Chinese language oddity there, shrink-talk and a running stream of observations about parents and child- and dog-rearing. "How do you predict things like angst and risky behavior...? We've mapped the entire human genome but don't know what most of it says." And, "Theorems are only theorems because they have never been proven wrong, but they have also never been proven right. It's all a great big loophole." How about one for moms: "What my mother lacks in vision, she makes up for in hindsight." And an answer for her shrink: "I don't have demons, I say, I have students and a dog."

But her coping and sorting is not just about being clever--Wang has an astute feel for the deep, scary uncertainties of a young, talented woman trying to shake off a demanding family and a derailed career and relationship. Her unnamed narrator doesn't run from the big stuff, although she can't seem to help herself from catching it in metaphor: "The atomic difference between diamond and graphite is nothing." Perhaps her efforts to understand her parents' past and extraordinary immigrant experience give her the most helpful perspective as her mother tries to teach her simple Chinese language history: "Two Shanghainese words: Ma zi. Ah zi. One means sock and the other means shoe. I could never get them straight." Chemistry is full of surprises--its many digressions congealing to yield an impressive literary blend. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: With wry observation and witty distraction, the narrator of Weike Wang's first novel is a Chinese immigrant daughter and a scientist trying to sort things out.

Powered by: Xtenit