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Perhaps because I live in Boston (where CHEMISTRY is set) and am daily surrounded on the subway and at coffee shops by doctoral students and postdocs, or maybe because several of my friends have (with more success) navigated the path trod with minimal enthusiasm by the novel’s unnamed narrator, I found Weike Wang’s debut almost intimately familiar, even though the protagonist’s academic training, interests and existential struggle couldn’t be less like my own experiences.

At the novel’s opening, the narrator is facing a turning point. She has already logged seemingly countless hours in the lab on the way (perhaps) to a doctorate in chemistry. But she’s having trouble making “the jump from technician to scientist” by formulating her own research-worthy question to pursue. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Eric, who has seemingly breezed through his own program, knows exactly what he wants to do (teach undergraduates) and where he wants to be (ideally Oberlin College in Ohio). When the narrator’s ambivalence toward her research coincides with her near-paralyzing fear of commitment instigated by Eric’s marriage proposal, the protagonist is sent into a tailspin of indecision and self-doubt.

"Wang...offers a refreshing portrait of a woman who is both knowledgeable and passionate about science --- something that is relatively rare in mainstream fiction."

Eventual therapy uncovers what readers will have suspected already: that the narrator’s complicated feelings about science and romance have their origins in her family story. Having been born in China and immigrated to the United States as a young child, the narrator is simultaneously pressured by her parents to excel and fearful that her own life will perpetuate the cycle of failure, resentment and conflict embodied by her parents’ professional disappointments and marital discord.

Wang’s narrator --- who reveals her story through short, often dryly (even unintentionally) witty observations and vignettes --- has an endearingly matter-of-fact voice and pragmatic outlook. At times, the bleakness of her situation is belied by the no-nonsense nature of her narration, leaving readers to read between the lines to find the emotion that’s latent there. She also, in the course of the book, discovers a real aptitude for teaching, as her creative explanations of chemical and physical properties demonstrate. Readers will be rooting for her to recognize this talent in herself (and, somewhat less likely, for her parents to do so) rather than to continually focus on her shortcomings.

Wang, who knows of what she writes (she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from Harvard before getting an MFA in writing), offers a refreshing portrait of a woman who is both knowledgeable and passionate about science --- something that is relatively rare in mainstream fiction. Even if readers have no background in science or academia, the narrator’s twenty-something spasms of self-doubt will ring true, as will her struggles to balance her origins with her own still-developing identity.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 26, 2017

by Weike Wang

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0525432221
  • ISBN-13: 9780525432227