“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”
I’m always a little bit sceptical of internationally published books that claim to provide ‘immigrant narratives’. I worried that this would be yet another novel that perpetuating self-orientalist notions of the ‘immigrant journey’. This is one of the main reasons I started this blog, to find and read stories that recognise the complexity of a transnational identity.
But I was pleasantly surprised by Weike Wang’s debut novel Chemistry, I am usually a very slow reader (reflected in the slow release of posts on this blog!) but I devoured this book in two days flat! Chemistry is a story of a woman finding her self in the midst of an imploding academic career and romantic relationship. Our protagonist is a chemist trying to but failing to complete her Chemistry PhD and trying but failing to take the next step in a long term relationship. The backdrop to her internal struggle is her strict upbringing as a child of first generation Chinese immigrants. The story is told in first person by an unnamed narrator and written in distinctive short chapters that keep you hooked.
Whilst the storyline is a familiar one, I loved Wang’s take on it. She brings up the question of belonging and otherness in a unique and witty way. I was glad that this book didn’t fixate on the stereotypical ‘going back to my roots to find myself’ narrative. Instead, Wang’s protagonist in her own clever, funny but also fallible way highlights the complexity of living in two worlds and still not being defined by it. She is more than the sum of her parts.
What I loved most about this book though, is the way it weaves humour and emotional depth. This book literally had me laughing out loud on the metropolitan line to work in the morning. Which trust me you need, when you’re face in is in another man’s armpit and you’re trying to act normal…
Some Quotes I liked:
Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.
Being in limbo doesn’t preclude us from sharing nice meals. In limbo, we still have to eat.
The optimist sees the glass half full. The pessimist sees the glass half empty. The chemist sees the glass completely full, half in liquid state and half gaseous, both of which are probably poisonous