A review of “Chemistry” by Weike Wang
The novel Chemistry by Weike Wang has been recognized and recommended by many well-known individuals, including Oprah. The story is filled with a blend of sarcastic, dry humor and science and is currently being adapted into a feature film.
The book begins with the main character, an organic chemistry graduate student, being proposed to her long-term boyfriend Eric. He is an exemplary person, having completed the same chemistry program as the narrator, in search for a teaching position at a university. However, the narrator is having trouble committing to him, making a pros and cons list without finding any particular bad reason to reject him. He cooks for her, is smart, and knows what he wants, but she can’t seem to commit to him. The main story explores her need to figure out why she has trouble accepting his proposal, which stems from childhood family issues.
She lived a chaotic childhood as a Chinese immigrant. Her mom and dad made the decision to move the family to America so her dad could complete his Ph.D. program in physics. He was always pushing the narrator to apply herself as a student and learn everything. In contrast, her mom was resentful that she gave up everything in China to follow her dad to America so he could follow his dreams. She was an established pharmacist, but because she lacked the ability to communicate in English, she could not retake the courses required to continue that career in America. The move caused a lot of arguments between the mom and dad, which affected the narrator in her adult life - instilling the fear that her own marriage will end up the same as her parents.
While the narrator comes from a broken home, Eric comes from an ideal happy home. His parents showed him affection, loved each other, and were supportive of his endeavors. As a child, he was curious about science, successfully completed a competitive Ph.D. program and was pursuing his desire to teach at a university.
The narrator was always pushed by her parents to study and pursue higher education. She was having a hard time in her thesis lab, resulting in a breakdown. Many beakers were damaged in the breakdown, and she was forced to take a leave of absence from the program. But the situation escalated when the school sent a letter suggesting a “permanent separation” with the program. She can not bring herself to call her parents, and when she does, she is berated by them. To appease her parents, the narrator lies to them, saying she just had a "bad day".
The narrator pursued her Ph.D. program because of her parents wishes, rather than from her own ambition. When she meets her best friend at Penn Station after the beaker incident, she expresses her true feelings about science. “I think there is still magic in it, but I can’t find it.” She was following her father’s shadow - he completed his Ph.D. degree in 3 years as an immigrant knowing very little English. His achievements set high standards that the narrator needed to meet, and the pressure to meet those standards led to her breakdown in the lab.
The narrator ends the relationship with Eric, as he finds a teaching position in Ohio, and she makes the decision to stay behind. She comes to the realization that she “doesn’t want to get married until [she] has done more for [herself].” The end of her Ph.D. program and her relationship with the "perfect" man allows her to start with a clean slate to figure out what she wants in life. While she acknowledges that she had everything, she realized that she was her own obstacle in her happiness.
Throughout her soul searching, she is hired as a tutor, but we say she also becomes a science communicator. During her tutoring sessions, she would share interesting science facts instead of going over the necessary worksheets. What she had been taught by her father and learned in school had value. The Ph.D. program was not her passion, but to teach others the beauty of science was her calling. For example, when explaining the radium poisoning incident caused by the Radium Dial Company in the 20th century, she explains, “To paint each watch, girls dipped their brushes in a pint of radium paint and then washed the paint off in their mouths. What was not known then is that ingest enough radium and it will go straight into your bones. Radium is like calcium. There is a reason that these two are in the same column of the periodic table. The teeth of these girls were the first to decay.” She is able to explain science in a way people can understand, which is brilliant. In the end, the narrator still isn't certain of her future but she unexpectedly found a direction to follow from tutoring her students.
This is a book of starting off with clean slates and finding oneself. She was very stubborn because she had the "perfect" man who had his life figured out. Why let that go? But her decision to stay in an unsatisfying relationship can be explained by her mother's unhappiness with her career. Eric and the narrator's dad are similar - both men had figured out their life ambitions, and got a Ph.D. in America to provide for their families. The saying "two opposites attract" reaches its end, with Eric not able to understand her.
I really liked this book, because in life we may want to make others happy, and that is okay, but we should focus on ourselves. I liked how the author didn’t provide names for most of the characters, because the book becomes more universal, which allows us to better relate to the main character. I related to her desire to make her parents proud, her family issues, and relationship issues. It’s a quick read filled with frustration and interesting science facts.
I personally related to the book, not only as a graduate student in STEM, but culturally as well. I am Chinese, and my parents immigrated from China and Vietnam. They aren’t as successful as the narrator’s parents. My dad never went to college and only finished high school from rural Vietnam. My mom got her esthetician license from a vocational school when I was in high school. I saw certain aspects of my mom in narrator's dad and mom. My mom's willingness to work, no matter how difficult it was to uproot her life from China shared some of the characteristics with the narrator's dad. He emailed every physicist he knew in America for 3 years in his broken English for better work opportunities, while my mom obtained a certificate and started a career with broken English.
I felt that the mom heavily contributed to the narrator’s breakdown and her need to succeed in graduate school. The narrator's mom had better career opportunities in China, and she felt the cashier position she took in America was below her, so she gave up looking for jobs. When the narrator dropped out of the program, the mom immediately berated her. Although the dad didn’t help the narrator either, the mom was more vocal in her beliefs about pursuing higher career goals. I grew up with similar standards.
At 26, it was expected that I should have finished school, get married, and fulfill more traditional roles in the family. Unlike the narrator, I brought my parents “up to speed” in my life. Throughout the book, I wished the narrator stood up for herself and voiced her personal desires in life just like I did. I made strides with my relationship with my parents by talking to them as equals, especially as an adult.
The narrator may not have known what she wanted in the long run, but she knew the program wasn’t right for her. If it was the right calling, she would’ve been flourishing as a graduate student like Eric. Of course, not all families are the same, but I projected my own experiences, since the narrator's situation felt so much like my own story. I also really enjoyed the symbolism of how Eric was the only character named, since he was the only one who really knew himself, and therefore has a name. I definitely enjoyed this book because not many are culturally and academically relatable the way this book was. There were many science jokes, and it’s so rare to see this kind of honesty and vulnerability in a novel. On a final note, the novel is also written in the narrator's slightly broken English, which made reading the novel feel very personal.