book review: Chemistry by Weike Wang

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CHEMISTRY by Weike Wang
★★★★
Knopf Publishing, May 2017

Chemistry was without a doubt my worst subject in high school. I have such a lingering resentment toward it that I almost dismissed Chemistry the novel for its title alone, but I was able to put my hatred of the subject aside long enough to really enjoy this – though I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is the right word. This is an incredibly intense book, and I felt like I wasn’t able to truly come up for air until I’d finished it.

Chemistry is The Bell Jar meets The Vegetarian but also something a bit lighter, quirkier. It doesn’t indulge in the same gory details of the two I just compared it to – this isn’t a book about psychiatric wards and forced hospitalization. Our unnamed narrator begins seeing a psychiatrist of her own free will, tries to make sense of the reason she can’t seem to commit to her long-term boyfriend, or the reason she just walked out on her PhD program at a prestigious university in Boston. It’s about her journey learning to trust, learning to give herself to another person while not compromising what she was raised to believe.

Weike Wang takes the traditional disintegrating mental health narrative and propels it into uncharted territory, by chronicling the mental breakdown of a young Asian American woman. The novel examines the ways that her upbringing – born in China, raised in the U.S. by Chinese immigrant parents – influenced the way she navigates adulthood, and the struggles that have arisen for her because of it.

The prose is spare and concise, but it isn’t simplistic. This is a very technically well crafted book, which plays with a fusion of tenses, past and present narratives often coexisting in a single paragraph. Though the large font and just-barely-200-pages makes it tempting to breeze through this, speed read Chemistry at your own peril. This is such a richly detailed book that you need to really slow yourself down in order to get everything out of it that Wang intended.

This book won’t work for everyone. It’s very light on plot and heavy on character analysis, full of razor sharp commentary on parental expectations and academic pressure. It’s definitely one of these books that’s going to appeal the most to people who have been in similar situations as the narrator, whether it’s being raised in the U.S. by Chinese parents (which does not apply to me) or having struggled with mental health while in an intensive academic setting (which definitely applies to me), so if you read this summary and think ‘there’s nothing here for me,’ chances are, there probably won’t be. But if you see even a fraction of yourself reflected in the narrator’s circumstances, this can be a very intense and harrowing read, though one that’s not without an underlying glimmer of hope.

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21 thoughts on “book review: Chemistry by Weike Wang

  1. Fantastic review! I love your writing style–it’s so specific and detailed even in a few words. I’ve been debating on whether or not to add this book to my (extensive) TBR but I think, after reading your impressions and hearing that it’s a short read, I might just do it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahhh thank you so much! That’s such a nice comment to receive.

      It’s definitely worth a try! After skimming a few Goodreads reviews they all seem to be pretty similar to mine or else a lower star rating and say ‘boring,’ so again, I think it all depends on how much you can relate to the narrator’s circumstances. And despite my comment about how it’s better to take it slow, it still is a VERY quick read, so it’s not a huge time investment. I hear you on the extensive TBR!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aww you’re so welcome! I took (read: struggled through) AP Chemistry my senior year of high school and have plans to take it again in college so the title scares me a little bit too but what’s another book on the TBR pile?

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are a brave soul to put yourself through that torture twice! I took honors chemistry in high school (my school didn’t offer it as an AP) and it just about killed me. Are you getting a STEM degree or just taking it for a requirement? I took geology for my lab science requirement in college, aka ‘rocks for jocks’ which was such a cop-out but about all the science I could handle at that point.

        Hahaha I know, my thoughts exactly – I used to be more sparing about what I add to the TBR but at this point it’s already THIS extensive, so…

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m headed to a liberal arts college and I have to take it as a requirement–I think pigs will fly before I get a STEM degree lol…it’s all English all the way for this gal! Geology sounds super interesting though 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s wonderful! I looked at all different kinds of schools and ended up going to a pretty large university, but the small liberal arts schools all looked so cozy. And English is as a fantastic degree. I bet you’re excited!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes can’t wait! I’m planning on double concentrating so I’m going to have a crap ton of work to do but the independence is so enticing–how about you, are you in school now or have you already graduated?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I graduated two years ago! By the time I finished I was ready to be done because I was really burned out at that point, and I’d spent my junior year abroad so adjusting back to the American school system for my senior year was kind of a challenge, but now I miss it a lot. What is your dual concentration going to be in?

        Liked by 1 person

      • So I want to double concentrate in creative writing and teacher licensure because my endgame is to write full-time, but I don’t think I’d be a very good starving artist so I want to teach English as a way to combine my two passions 🙂 any advice for a freshman who’s simultaneously excited and scared?

        Liked by 1 person

      • That sounds amazing! It sounds like you have a really clear idea of what you want to do, which is great. I’m sure your classes will be fascinating too.

        HMMM that is a great question, let me see…

        (Assuming you’re going to live on campus and have a roommate) Be upfront and honest with your roommate as much as possible. I am the least confrontational person ever so this was a struggle for me, but I can’t stress the importance of this enough. If you can’t sleep with the light on, tell her, because the alternative is to say it’s fine and then secretly let your resentment build over the next two semesters. Randomly living with a stranger is weird and it’s inevitably going to be a series of compromises, but it works so much better when you have the sort of relationship where you can be honest with each other.

        Also, more about roommates – I don’t know if you get to pick your roommate or if you’ve already picked one or if it’s randomly assigned or how it works for your school, BUT, if you do get to choose: similar living habits are SO much more important in a roommate than having similar interests. I got to choose my roommate on one of those e-harmony-esque websites, and the way I went about it was all wrong. I love my freshman/sophomore roommate dearly, but our sleep schedules were (literally) night and day from one another. People rarely become best friends with their roommates anyway, so as tempting as it is to try to find someone to be close friends with, you really want to find someone who’s on the same page as you with basic living things – sleeping schedules, whether you want someone who’s around all the time or someone who studies in the library, levels of cleanliness etc…

        Watch as you don’t even have a roommate after all that 😂 Moving on.

        Be as open to new experiences as possible, but don’t feel like you’re missing out on the Vital College Experience if you don’t join 30 clubs or if you’d rather stay in than go to that big house party one night. There’s no ‘right’ way to do college, and you hear from everyone that you need to make the most of it, but don’t push yourself too hard! Ditto with your work load – don’t overload on classes your first semester before you get a feel for how much work is going to be involved.

        Take advantage of free events sponsored at your college, like random guest speakers, and also your student ID will get you into a lot of places in the nearest town for free or a discounted price, so keep an eye out for that!

        Your semesters are going to go by so quickly you will not even believe it. I don’t know if your school is close to home – mine wasn’t, I live in Vermont and I went to college in New Orleans – so I was really intimidated by being so far away from home for so long, but the time literally flies by. Also, everyone is just as excited and nervous as you are. If you feel homesick at any point, I promise you are not alone!

        That’s all kind of generic – if you have any more specific questions don’t hesitate to ask!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wow this advice is awesome! I’m doing random rooming so I’m a little worried about compatibility but I’ll keep that in mind and be upfront. Thanks for taking the time to write all this out–so glad that we connected!

        Liked by 1 person

      • In a way there are advantages to random rooming! When you choose your roommate like I did you’re both extra focused on trying to force the friendship and do everything together at first, but when you’ve got a random roommate it’s a little easier to mingle with the rest of the people in your dorm and in your classes. So yeah, the honesty is really the biggest thing – as long as you’re both willing to work with each other’s rooming needs, it’ll work out just fine. I can count on one hand how many people I know who had Disastrous rooming experiences – usually it worked out in the end for everyone.

        You’re welcome, it’s my pleasure! I was just trying to think of things I wish I’d been told going into college. It’s definitely daunting!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah I’m pretty glad that I went this rooming route because I’m introverted too and trying to find a roommate online was giving me way more anxiety than the possibility of rooming with someone random! And I’m pretty sure I’m going to live in a flat of eight girls (four rooms with two girls in each) so I’m pretty excited for that!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh wow, that sounds amazing! I was in a hall with I think around 40 other girls? And mainly made friends with the girls in the rooms on either side of mine. That arrangement sounds way more conducive to meeting people.

        Liked by 1 person

      • WAIT I FORGOT THE BIGGEST ONE. Go to office hours! Your professors are going to have office hours on the syllabus when they’re available to chat, and you REALLY want to take advantage of that. You can just go and introduce yourself and talk about what you’re hoping to get out of the class, or ask specific questions about one of your papers, and they will LOVE IT. You’ll get so much more out of the class, but also, when it comes to applying to grad school or jobs or whatever you’re going to do immediately after that requires a recommendation letter, your professors will know you by name, which is so huge. I kind of shot myself in the foot with this – I’m really shy and introverted and never took advantage of office hours, and now going forward if I want to apply to grad school I’m not in a great position, recommendation letter wise. Of course I’m sure it’ll be easier for you anyway since you’ll be at a small liberal arts school and I was at a massive university which mostly had lecture classes, but still. Office hours!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ooh I’ve heard that this is critical, but your recommendation just enforces it! I went to a really small high school and know all my teachers really well so I’ll definitely take that experience into college 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I did too! That was half the draw of me choosing such a large school – I loved the anonymity of it, since I’m from a really small town where everyone knows everyone and it gets a little suffocating. But willfully choosing to not go to office hours was not the best way to reinforce my newfound anonymity. I think there are a grand total of 3 professors who’d even remember my name at this point… yikes!

        Liked by 1 person

    • I could see you going either way with this! It’s definitely more literary than what you usually go for, but it’s undeniably #relatable and also a lot more quick and readable than a lot of lit fic.

      Liked by 1 person

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