I did a lot of reading in June, but it wasn’t until June 23rd that I finally read something that I felt worthy of a recommendation. Chemistry: A Novel by Weike Wong is about a young woman finding her path in life after a breakdown.
The narrator is a PhD candidate who works in a chemistry lab with her boyfriend, Eric. He seems to live a charmed life — loving and doting parents, and straight trajectory through college in which he completed his PhD, graduated, and was offered a job in Oberlin, which necessitated a move. Eric asks the narrator to marry him and move with I’m, but she wavers and cannot commit.
Her life is not so charmed. She was raised by first-generation Chinese immigrant parents who were stern, demanding, unemotional, and who set high expectations. Her father’s story was a classic immigrant success story — he became an engineer, and the narrator feels the stress of trying to match his achievements: “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.”
And her work in the lab is not getting results. “The goal of a science PhD is to have an original idea,” she says. And while she has always been a top student, “. . . what every scientist knows — you can’t just be proficient; you have to have insight.” She cannot help but feel like a failure: “Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is a fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you. It can’t be the chemicals’ fault, you think.”
She suffers a breakdown of sorts and leaves school and the lab on medical leave. As she struggles with what to do next, she works through the legacy of her parents lives, her harsh upbringing, and her views on marriage. She has to work through disappointing her parents and finding her own purpose. Her parents’ marriage was fraught and tense — not a great example. And now her best friend is dealing with a cheating husband and an imperfect reconciliation. The narrator looks at the marriages of some women chemists from history — Clara Haber had to give up her chemistry career when she married fellow chemist Fritz Haber. When he developed chlorine gas as a weapon of war, she shoots herself. Marie Curie worked in partnership with her husband Pierre, and they shared their discoveries and the acclaim of Nobel prizes.
The narrator speaks in a rather flat, unemotional voice. “[I]t is the Chinese way . . . to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.” But I was drawn to the character and her flawed family. Who cannot love someone who makes a statement like: “What my mother lacks in vision, she makes up for in hindsight.”