If good things come in small packages, then Weike Wang’s first novel, Chemistry, is a very good thing indeed. Featuring a struggling scientist and the collapse of her professional and romantic lives, Wang’s short and bittersweet debut packs a devastating emotional wallop despite its slender size.
Chemistry takes readers on a no-holds-barred trip into the dark and choppy waters of a woman’s skeptical mind as it does battle with her heart. When we first meet our anonymous narrator, she is several years into her graduate studies in chemistry only to find her enthusiasm for the subject flagging as her experiments fail to produce publishable results, much to the consternation of her advisor and the exasperation of her austere Chinese parents. Her private life proves no source of comfort, as she and her live-in boyfriend have entered an uneasy standoff due to her reluctance to accept his repeated marriage proposals. When a beaker-fueled breakdown at the lab leads to an indefinite leave of absence and her boyfriend accepts a faculty position in another state, it seems the narrator has finally hit rock bottom. She soon realizes, however, that her downward spiral is only beginning and that the second law of thermodynamics—that systems tend toward chaos—applies not only in the lab but also to life.
Reminiscent of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Chemistry is an intimate and insightful novel that reads more like a memoir than it does fiction, so honest is its portrayal of its central character’s rich internal life. Wang’s own background in academia is an asset, adding authority and veracity to the protagonist and her world. Unafraid to explore the fallibility and foibles of our narrator, Wang exposes and probes her neuroses and insecurities with pithy and precise prose, capably blending in moments of wry comedy and absurd observations that keep things from ever getting too bleak. Emotionally exacting and daring, Chemistry is an astonishing and assured debut from one of fiction’s most exciting new voices.