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.