Chemistry is an interesting, short novel by Weike Wang following an unnamed PhD chemistry student for about year and half during her ‘what am I going to do with my life’ mid-twenties crisis. She’s struggling to finish her research project and has fallen out of love with science or at least her chemistry program. Her long-term boyfriend has proposed and asked her to move out of state with him when he gets his first post-doctorate job. But she’s not ready for marriage and fears moving with him because of how her mother resented moving to America for her dad’s career aspirations. During the novel, the narrator comes to terms with her depression – without ever really admitting she’s depressed. Along the way she examines childhood memories and the difficulties associated with being the child of immigrants; in particular trying to meet the cultural and personal expectations of her parents.
I related a lot to the narrator’s disinterested, numbing depression. I thought Wang nailed it in articulating how depression feels, despite the narrator never explicitly stating she was depressed or that her actions and feeling were symptoms of depression. But if you know or have felt the symptoms you can see the elephant in the room right away; its the centerpiece of her emotional(less) state. And even more interesting, it’s a book about someone struggling with depression that is also . . . kind of funny! It’s filled with wry humor and not depressing at all. So don’t fear it will put you in a bad mood or be difficult to get through.
For me, the hardest part of reading the book was the writing style, as it’s written in a very direct manner. I cringed a little when I first started reading because it felt like reading my engineering friends’ English papers in undergrad. The prose had short, choppy sentences, which is exactly how I would imagine a scientist would write a novel. I realize the writing style is that way to mimic how a chemistry PhD student like the narrator might write. Or at least I sincerely hope that’s the reason. It does fit with the narrative, but still it took me a bit to get used to it. At the very least, it was a different change of pace from the writing style of books I normally read.
My friend recommended this book to me as a good one bath read (I concur). She mentioned that she related to the narrator’s experience being raised by immigrants and the family scenarios specific to that. Not so relatable to me, but I did like how those descriptions gave the story more texture.
Overall, I appreciated how the writing style and unique narrative approach made the novel something really different than what I would normally read. I came away with the impression that it was a very modern novel. I don’t usually care for modern things, so I was surprised by how much I liked it.
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