Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book 134: Chemistry

"Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you. It can't be the chemicals' fault, you think. They have no souls."

Dates read: March 18-21, 2017

Rating: 7/10

When I was in middle school, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I had always been the kind of kid for whom "bad behavior" most directly translated into "mouthing off", and I loved to play devil's advocate, and I was stubborn like an ox. I was captain of the mock trial team in high school, and I really thought being a lawyer was exactly what I wanted. Until I got to law school, which I hated. And then started practicing, which I hated even more. Figuring out that I needed to go another way is a decision I'm constantly thankful I made.

Coming from an adult perspective, I think it's silly that we expect 16 year olds to have any idea what they might want to do for the rest of their lives. I think of myself as being pretty smart, but it turned out what I was sure I wanted to do at 16 was incredibly wrong for me. And the protagonist (never named) of Weike Wang's Chemistry is in kind of a similar boat. Pursuing a Ph.D. in, of course, chemistry at a prestigious New England university, she has a bit of a meltdown as her experiment fails to produce results. Although she does love the field, she begins to question her choices about everything in life as she takes time off of her program.

There's not a lot of "plot" in this book, really. The protagonist is trying to decide what to do about her long-term relationship with a fellow chemist who has proposed to her but she's not sure she wants to marry, trying to figure out how to support herself without her graduate student stipend, being there for her best friend through pregnancy and early motherhood and marriage crises, and figuring out when and how and if to tell her Chinese immigrant parents that she's not in school anymore. It is this last matter that most preoccupies her, and much of the book is made up of her recollections of her childhood, of her parents' relationships with each other and with her, of the pressure she feels to succeed in the ways that they value in order to validate their sacrifices.

Stories like these illustrate the power of "own voices": an Asian-American woman telling the story of an Asian-American woman. A lot of non-Asians look to them as a so-called "model minority", hard workers somehow naturally gifted at math and science. Of course the reality behind that is more complicated (it's as much a result of the kinds of immigrants that tend to leave Asia behind to travel to America as much as anything else), and Wang pulls back the curtain on what might seem like a neat little family of a scientist, a housewife, and their scientist daughter to show the internal workings that are just as messy as anyone's home life.

That being said, evaluating Chemistry on its novelistic merits reveals a book that is good but not great, and quite obviously a debut, though a promising one. Our nameless narrator is at times rather formless, and mostly reacts to the events around her rather than being proactive. She's very unsure of herself after breaking out a track that she found herself in more than chose, and while that's understandable, it makes her hard to really get enough of a feel for to connect with much. But Wang's writing is sure and emotionally true, and I enjoyed this book and would recommend it, especially to 20somethings that are wondering if they're on the right track.

Tell me, blog friends...did you end up doing what you thought you would at 16?

One year ago, I was reading: The Year of Living Biblically

Two years ago, I was reading: Song of Achilles

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