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Goodbye, Vitamin

Review

Goodbye, Vitamin

Just last week, I was saying to a friend that perhaps I was getting too old to read books by authors under 30. Too many novels by millennials, I complained (especially one I had finished recently), seemed overly self-centered to me, too concerned with the minutiae of relatively trivial emotional concerns, and not concerned enough with the real world and with other people.

And then I picked up Rachel Khong’s debut novel, GOODBYE, VITAMIN, which promptly changed my opinion. Granted, Khong, who also has written a nonfiction book and for several years was the managing editor of the magazine Lucky Peach, is not exactly a freshly minted MFA student. She has a few years of professional and life experience under her belt, and it shows in her fiction, which is compassionate, thoughtful and observant --- pretty much the opposite of self-centered.

"Throughout, GOODBYE, VITAMIN explores the contrast between the acute heartache of a romantic relationship’s end and the chronic heartache of losing a loved one to dementia."

GOODBYE, VITAMIN centers on 30-year-old Ruth, who travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles to visit her parents for the Christmas holidays. While she’s there, her mother begs her to take some time off from her job, to come home and spend the next year helping to care for her father, who recently has been let go from his university teaching position due to his rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s disease.

Still recovering from a painful breakup with her one-time fiancé and putting in time as an ultrasound technician (a job she doesn’t particularly care about), Ruth at first bristles at the notion of returning to her childhood home and her role as a daughter, but fails to find a compelling reason to turn her mother down. So she is soon serving as her father’s primary caregiver, focusing her attention on his well-being even as she struggles to recover from her own broken heart. She and her father’s graduate assistant concoct a plan to enable her father to continue teaching a small group of eager students --- an endeavor that at first seems compassionate toward this man who wants nothing more than to continue teaching history, but eventually backfires.

While she copes with her father’s increasing forgetfulness and occasional volatility, Ruth must come to terms with her family’s uncomfortable past, which includes a history of infidelity and alcohol abuse. Much of these behaviors did not manifest themselves until after Ruth had left home to go to school, so she also must navigate her own definition of family with her younger brother’s very different one.

During her year of caregiving, Rachel has been encountering snippets from a notebook her father kept when she was young, recording funny things she said or questions she asked, or just how it felt to be her father. Late in the book, Ruth turns the tables, choosing to record this precious, fleeting time with her father in a series of observations and celebrations of the present moment, before that present becomes the past.

Throughout, GOODBYE, VITAMIN explores the contrast between the acute heartache of a romantic relationship’s end and the chronic heartache of losing a loved one to dementia. And it is interspersed with these small moments of joy, often when Ruth recognizes some moment of shared humanity with acquaintances or strangers, or as she allows herself to view her father and her family as simultaneously imperfect and indescribably precious.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 21, 2017

Goodbye, Vitamin
by Rachel Khong

  • Publication Date: July 11, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1250109167
  • ISBN-13: 9781250109163