‘Chemistry’

‘Chemistry’ by Weike Wang, Knopf, 2017, 213 pages, $24.95

It is not conventional at all, this absorbing character study, a first novel from Weike Wang. It is a book about uncertainty and insecurity, yet it is a book of perpetual wonder.

It is pithy — barely 200 pages — brief enough to be read in one sitting. Yet it’s impossible to keep from returning to savor sections of it.

Its plot is nothing special: an unnamed former graduate student finds everything about her life unfulfilling. Yet it’s impossible to put the book down.

To further muddy things, its protagonist is totally exasperating from the beginning. (Her first words in the novel are: “The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says, That’s not how this works.”) Yet it’s impossible to stop reading.

The girl — that’s what she calls herself — has been a chemistry Ph.D. student. (Wang herself holds a Ph.D. in cancer epidemiology from Harvard.) She acknowledges a tendency towards — almost a love of — writing, but finds that path a difficult one to go down.

She worries about being judged by her father, who is a sort of Chinese Horatio Alger: “But such progress he’s made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.” She worries about being judged by her mother, a seemingly commanding woman: “What my mother lacks in vision, she makes up for in hindsight.”

Eric, her boyfriend and — revealingly — the only character given a proper name, is a fulfilled individual. His red hair makes him even physically distinctive. He is patient, kind and funny. He can also withstand the ongoing pressure of a Ph.D. program, and he can do so while looking towards his future.

Life in Boston is so exasperatingly commonplace that there’s only what others are doing to fill up the girl’s days. She simply does not know what she wants — wants to do or wants to be. (At one point, she asks her blissfully goofy dog: “What do you want from me? You must want something.”)

To fill up her life (and the book she has written for us) the girl stuffs her pages with scientific theorems and histories, each amusingly related to what she has just recounted from her life. (In speaking of her disastrous personal life, she admits that her heart aches, for example, but then tells us “scientifically” — and emphatically — that the heart cannot feel sore because “cardiac tissue cannot feel tired.”) All of this is a brilliantly realized conceit that, believe it or not, is a genuine part of the book’s charm.

“Chemistry.” That’s the part of her life the girl must get in order. That is the formula she is searching for.

In the final analysis, Weike Wang’s funny, daring, poetic, poignant and insightful little book is about coming of age. In Chinese, we are told, the word for “chemistry” means “the study of change.”

Wouldn’t it be a good thing if there were one scientific formula for change, a formula that yielded the same results for every one of us?

There isn’t, though. There simply isn’t.

Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.