This short, first novel by Weike Wang is a delight, although I very nearly didn’t pick it up because I was put off by the cover. How can chemistry be a subject for an interesting story? It turns out that it is, in a somewhat peripheral way.
The protagonist, a young Asian woman born in China, finds herself in a graduate program in chemistry without really knowing why or how. She does know, however, that her father, who came from nothing in rural China, brought his family to the United States to better their lives. He learned the language at the same time he was working his way up to earning his PhD in mathematics and engineering.
He was justifiably proud of this, but it had one major side effect: if he could do this, his daughter could, and would. (It seems that in Asian families, dad’s word is the last word, and this sets up the recurring theme of the story.) The protagonist is caught between his demands and her desires to plan her own future, leaving her unable to make decisions or to fully commit to much of anything.
I refer to the main character as “the protagonist” because we never learn her name, her father’s, or that of her best friend, referred to throughout simply as “Best Friend.” Her mother named herself Joy on her arrival in the States. And we do learn the name of her live-together boyfriend: Eric.
To me, this seems to be a reflection of “the protagonist’s” low sense of self worth and the awareness that, extremely bright with a definite plan for his future, Eric can do anything and have anything (including a name.)
My delight in this book comes from “the protagonist’s” quirky way of observing and commenting on her world. However, occasionally, she does throw in a comment that might not initially seem pertinent to the story.
“…a new fear I have is that I am losing my Chinese-ness. It is just flaking off me like dead skin. And below that skin is my American-ness. As a child, I often dreamed in Chinese, but I have not dreamed in Chinese for a long time. The steps in my logic, thus, ergo, hence, are now all in English. Oddly enough, I still count in Chinese, so I try my best to count everything that I pass. Three bananas. Seven bicycles. 12 babies strapped to 12 adults. This way the skin stays intact.”
As a psychiatrist, many of the people I see are trying to cope with unhappiness, perhaps pain and despair in family relationships. Few of them find the resolution that “the protagonist” accomplishes, with the growing sense of a separate, worthwhile self. Come to think of it, this likely has a lot to do with my delight in this little book. I have only two complaints: the psychiatrist in me would have liked to hear more of the continued story; and we have to wait for Wang’s next novel. I look forward to it.