Weike Wang’s “Chemistry” is funny, sharp and bright-as-ice. Told in searing, present-tense vignettes, “Chemistry” takes us through the tumultuous life of a young PhD student who has what one review calls, an anti-coming-of-age. Pushed by her parents to achieve and pressured by her boyfriend to at least consider marriage, our unnamed narrator becomes increasingly unmoored as the novel unfolds.
The narrator is endearingly sweet, funny and sad as she reveals snippets about her Chinese immigrant parents and their complicated marriage, her adoring Midwestern boyfriend who wants to marry her, her ambivalence about her success, her doctor best friend who seemingly has it all, and her not-so-smart but faithful dog.
Each section of the novel is short but searing, with moments of excruciating sadness. (For example: when the narrator smashes all the beakers in her lab and takes a subsequent not-entirely-voluntary leave of absence, or when she asks her Goldendoodle what he wants from her and the answer is “nothing.”) The sadness is punctuated by hilarious facts about chemistry that are really pithy observations about life. Wang, who is herself a scientist, writes without waste—every word, every sentence, every image stands its ground. This novel is simplicity at its finest.
This is a serious novel—it touches on hefty subjects like infidelity and devotion, success and failure, fear and joy and . . . the fear of joy. But, Wang tells this story with such a spare touch and biting sense of humor that it doesn’t feel heavy. In fact, there were many moments that made me laugh out loud. To me, this novel felt like notes passed in class or conversation over glasses of wine with someone you want to know better.