What do chemistry and literature have in common? Both help us make sense of the world. In her debut novel, Weike Wang turns chemistry into alchemy with a blend of concise writing, Chinese wisdom, and unexpected humor.
Wang leaves her protagonist, a chemist and the daughter of Chinese immigrants, largely unnamed. In an interview with NPR Wang said she didn’t want her character to be defined by a name. Wang wanted her story to feel more universal: “Her culture is part of her. But I think what I wanted to underscore was that she’s also just a person as well.”
She is just a person who is struggling to find her place in the world, to learn to love and let herself be loved in return. Marry me, her boyfriend, Eric (also a chemist), asks. She cannot answer. She cannot simply say yes. She cannot finish her PhD, and she cannot escape the feeling of failure.
The tensions between parents and children, the pressure of expectations, is a familiar theme, but Wang also emphasizes how everything intensifies in the relationships between immigrant parents and their children. They gave up everything for a better life, for themselves but mostly for her. In this family’s case the mother, an educated and successful pharmacist, is relegated to a tiny sphere the size of her family and local immigrant community. She cannot work and she struggles to make herself understood. She watches the gap between herself and her dreams, herself and her daughter, steadily widen. You are nothing to me without that degree, she says to her daughter over the phone. Her father sends her eggplants.
Be fearless in life, love, and science. What does that mean? To not feel fear? To face fear? Wang’s protagonist, with her quirky philosopher-scientist mind, references Tolstoy and Einstein, Marie Curie, C.S. Lewis, and a pivotal scene between Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts in “Stepmom,” trying to write an equation to live by.
Wang has created a relatable but unfinished character. She is infuriating and baffling. She cannot hold hands. She can be spiteful. She is neither an optimist or a pessimist, merely a chemist who “sees the glass completely full, half in liquid state and half gaseous.” Only Eric, the boyfriend, has a name; her parents, the best friend, the best friend’s husband and baby, lack names. I’m not sure about how I feel about the weight lent to Eric’s character by giving him a name. However, Wang uses music, specifically the Beatles, to write the most sensual and real sex scene I’ve read in a while.
Ultimately, what do you do with a love-sick chemist when you can’t helium, curium, or barium? Maybe read them this equation from Wang’s novel:
“Happiness = reality – expectations
If reality > expectations, then you are happy.
If reality < expectation, then you are not.”