The Chinese word for chemistry is hua xue. The first character means to change, transform, melt. The second character means to learn. Said with a different inflection, xue could mean snow, hua could mean speech, and chemistry becomes the melting of snow, becomes the learning of speech.
No, this isn’t a chemistry text, nor is it a Chinese language guide; it’s a novel about a woman who comes to several dead ends in her life, and has no idea what to do next. In her NYT review, Alexandra Alter called it an “anti-coming-of-age story: Instead of figuring out how to be an adult, the narrator learns to live with uncertainty and indecision.” Wang pushed back on that a little in her Asia Society blog interview: “the novel ends in the middle of [the narrator’s] development. She’s on the upswing as far as potential for change, but you don’t see the victory dance.” I’m not sure I like “coming of age” for someone who’s well into adulthood, but there is a coming-to-terms with, or at least a recognition of, a number of problematic relationships she’s been at the mercy of: with her mother, her father, her boyfriend, her career goals, and her identity as a Chinese-American woman and daughter.
I didn’t notice until I read the Penguin Reader’s Guide that only the boyfriend Eric is named. That’s interesting. Except for the narrator – who, naturally enough in a first-person story, doesn’t refer to herself as anything other than “I” – everyone but Eric is referred to by their relationship to her: parents, best friend, lab mate, math student. It almost feels like this is an inversion of the usual thing where the named characters are the most important. That Eric’s relationship isn’t labeled fits with both the odd relationship they had at the outset, and his departure midway through the novel.
The brittle humor and style – many smallish sections, about a page or so – keep things from edging into sentimentality, but there’s plenty of emotional territory covered. As well, some scenes are downright hilarious. Early on, our narrator loses her place in grad school; whether it’s because she’s just not a good enough chemist, or because she doesn’t love chemistry enough to do it well, is one of the issues she’s struggling with. Best Friend tries to help:
The best friend has sent me a present. It is a stuffed doll with yellow yarn for hair and two Xs for eyes and a line for a mouth. It is called a Dammit Doll. I am to grasp this doll by the legs and whack the stuffing out of it, while shouting, Dammit, dammit, dammit. I try, but the doll has proven to be made from industrial grade stuff. I have named it Science, You Motherfucker.
I can sympathize; mine would be named Math.
The beginning of the novel finds our narrator working outrageously long hours as a graduate student in her chem lab, yet unable to produce the result she needs. The confidence she felt as an outstanding student in high school is long gone, and she’s losing the love she had for the field:
Coming in, I think myself the best at chemistry. In high school, I win a national award for it. I say, cockily, at orientation, Yes, that was me, only to realize that everyone else had won it as well, at some point, In addition to awards I have never won.
I am a senior in college when I decide to go into synthetic organic chemistry. I am mesmerized by the art of it. The purpose of this kind of chemistry is to build a molecule that is already present in nature, but to build it better than nature, in the least number of steps, with a beautiful key step. Technique is everything. Percent yield is everything. For months I am running the same reaction over and over again, the seventh step of a twenty-four-step synthesis, just so I can get the yield up from 50 percent to 65 because anything under 60 is unacceptable to the advisor. Then for months, I am running step eight. Then for years, the advisor is asking, Do we have it, the molecule? And I say, no, it is still at large.
In time, you find yourself no longer mesmerized.
I’m reminded of an article by Kamil Ahsan about the falling-out-of-love-with-biology that happens when you “inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years.”
Add to this her sense that her boyfriend’s academic career is soaring, and she feels left behind. “Please stop, just for a little while, and let me catch up. How do you expect me to marry you if you never let me catch up?” she whispers at night as he sleeps.
Then there are parental expectations, both expressed and unexpressed. Her father has set a high bar by example:
My father’s is the classic immigrant story.
He is the first in his family to go to high school and college and graduate school and America. He is the first to become an engineer. …
But such progress is made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.
Her mother has a very different story.
My mother’s mother was one of the best architects in Shanghai.
In the late 1970s, she helps reconstruct the Bund. During this time, she tells my mother, still a teenager, that if she were ever to settle down and have children, she need only had daughters. Daughters have more chu xi and xiao shun, she says. Chu xi is the ability to succeed. Xiao shun is filial piety. My grandmother believes this because she was one of those daughters – having accomplished a great deal, having married well, raised two kids, and taken care of her parents in the last years of their lives.
But to follow my father to America, my mother inevitably gives up both.
And for this reason, I think she believes herself to have failed.
Then the moment of shock sets in. A daughter? You must be mistaken. I do not have a daughter. And if I did, how would I raise her if I cannot set for her an example?
Upon putting that car in reverse and leaving, she thinks, finally, a chance to start anew. But then she realizes that she cannot get very far without my father. There are many things she cannot read or say. And money, she doesn’t have her own money.
Maybe she also comes back because of you, the shrink says. The maternal instinct kicking in.
If she does, she never shows it.
This not only sets up high expectations – anything less than a PhD is unacceptable – but adds to the narrator’s reluctance to marry Eric and follow him when he is offered the job of his dreams at Oberlin.
All of this culminates in a meltdown (chemistry, the study of melting) in the lab and the breaking of beakers. She is put on medical leave and sent to a shrink, then cut from the program. Eric gets his dream job and moves without her. Now what?
Now what turns out to be continuing therapy, watching her best friend have a baby and leave her husband when he cheats on her, and working as a math and science tutor. Without the pressure of the lab and the exhausting work schedule, without the constant self-comparison to Eric, and without the pressure to decide about marriage, some things start to sort themselves out. Her memories of her parents grow less damaging. Her confusion about how to keep her Chinese identity while remaining American starts to become less burdensome. And she starts to enjoy teaching.
Science is used as example and metaphor throughout the novel.
Biologically, physical strength comes from mitochondria, which are organelles that generate all of our body’s energy. A unique feature of mitochondria is that they have their own DNA. Whereas the rest of the body is built on code that is half paternal and half maternal, mitochondrial DNA is entirely maternal and passed down from the mother.
Thus the narrator, instead of fearing she will disappoint her mother, can claim the strength she has inherited from her. Finding a different path does not have to mean failure; it can mean success is redefined, and becomes more fulfilling.
And if you think in terms of the nuclear family, physics teaches more than equations:
For a long time, scientists did not know why the nucleus of an atom held together. Theoretically, it should not. It is made up of all positive charges that should repel, but somehow, it persists.
It’s not by accident Wang chose science for the background of her first novel. She did her undergraduate work at Harvard in Chemistry, completed a doctorate in Public Health, and then picked up an MFA from Boston University. It’s interesting, in this STEM-focused era, how some people find their way back to the humanities.
I put this book on my TBR list when I first heard about it a couple of years ago; the blend of science and cultural adaptation appealed to me. Then I came across Wang’s story “Omakase” in last year’s BASS. Interestingly, it involves a woman moving to another city for a man, a man who annoyed me greatly. In my wrap-up post for the volume, I said I wasn’t sure about it yet; that’s still the case, but it was enough to move this novel from list to bookshelf for this year’s read.
I think the style was used to great effect here; a novel with a more fluid style, scene transitions and more filled-out prose, would have felt unduly heavy and almost trite. Instead, the novel bubbles and bounces, leaving its marks in concentrated packets. Of course, I enjoyed the use of science. And it turns out I like academic novels even when they stop being academic halfway through.