Chemistry – by Weike Wang

Anne convinced me to join the Book Of the Month Club, which she has been a member of for a few months and absolutely loves, and I’m so glad she did! I currently have a 3 month membership, and I pay $30, or $10/month. There are five books up each month and you get to pick which one you want, and then you can pay (less than retail or even Amazon!) for any add-on books you want. I had a promo code when I joined, so in addition to the BOTM pick “Chemistry” for that month, I also got a book by David Sedaris for free.

I really, really, really enjoyed this book – without liking the narrator too much. And I think that is the testament of a good novel: you can adore it without liking the person through whose voice it’s told.

I chose this book as my pick out of the five for a couple reasons. It had a bright yellow color, and that made it striking and hard to resist. I’m also a big fan of books about brain chemistry. I hate chemistry (love stoichiometry, because it’s chemistry disguised as math), but when I read the synopsis it was clearly about brain chemistry, anxiety, introspection, the whole deal, and I was sold. I also picked it because it was written by a woman of color, and as a woman of color, it’s important to me to support my general community. I’ve read enough books by white men to last me a lifetime; I’m way past ready for others to have a seat at the table.

In some ways, this was a book I tried to write back in college. I failed, but I wrote my own kind of book – a collection of short stories, with themes simliar to those found in this book. I related to so much of what the author said; it felt like I was highlighting something on every other page just because it resonated with me.

I will share those quotes, and discuss this book further, but will do my best to do so without giving away the plot.

I really liked the structure of the book. There are no chapters. Instead, the book is broken into three parts, and each of those parts are broken down into sections, with a few dots separating one narrative chunk from the next. Some chunks go on for pages; others are two lines. I really, really liked that, which surprised me, because I generally don’t have strong feelings for that kind of stream of consciousness writing.

The characters were fantastic – even though I didn’t like the narrator at all. Some characters had names, and most didn’t. There was the narrator, Eric, math student, mother and father, labmate, advisor, best friend, the husband, the baby, and so on. I liked that. I have no problem keeping a bunch of names and relationships in my head so that I know who’s who, but it was actually kind of nice to not have to worry about it and just know the person because their “name” was their relationship to the narrator or someone she knew. It was actually kind of charming, that little choice.

The plot was very slow and character driven … and not what I had expected. I loved how it was fleshed out, absolutely loved it.

The narrator, however, as you may have picked up on, I did not love. I did not like her much at all. And I’m wondering what that says about me. I was frustrated by her, often rolling my eyes at her, huffing under my breath at her and wondering why she had to be so extra sometimes, why she couldn’t just fucking deal.

Clearly, the narrator is a woman with an anxiety disorder. CLEARLY.

And what does it say about me that I’m so frustrated with her, so over her? Nothing good, I’m afraid.

“I don’t like her,” Ann agreed with me. “She’s a quitter.”

I can understand Ann’s perspective, even though I don’t agree. Ann, my best friend’s wife, is a brilliant woman who earned her PhD in microbiology a few years ago. Her path was very similar to the narrator’s; rigorous study, long hours in a lab, hellish advisors, and all of it leading up to a thesis defense. And Ann did it. She did it beautifully and earned her PhD. She’s told me about the experience, as she and I weren’t particularly close friends when she was going through it, and I know she struggled. It was hard, even without trying to juggle family, pets (two cats), a boyfriend-fiance (Kenny), and just the act of living (paying bills, sleeping, eating). She struggled and she persevered and she came out of it with a doctorate.

Ann also has an anxiety disorder, one which is currently under control. So when she sees the narrator, I can imagine that she might see a young woman who was just like her, who had certain luxuries that Ann didn’t (“how the hell does she have time for a dog?? And a goldendoodle? Sure I had cats but they’re barely any work!”), left the field for a bit, and then did not get the help she needed and so left the field for good.

That clashes with who Ann is as a person. If she needs help, she gets it. So when she says she sees the narrator as a quitter, I totally get why she does.

But I don’t necessarily see her as a quitter. I saw her as someone who wasn’t totally happy with what she was doing, had a little break with reality, and left the field. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. A good friend of mine left law school after our first year. He realized it wasn’t his thing and he went and got his teaching degree and now he teaches history to middle schoolers and loves it. Better to get out rather than stick with something you hate and keep sinking time, money, and your mental health into it.

So my dislike of the narrator wasn’t because I thought she was a quitter. I think it was because she had a problem and she would not get proper help for it (and no, trying to out-shrink her shrink does not count as getting help), and I see that as weakness. And I am terrified of weakness in myself, so I think I despise it in other people – because I’m afraid of seeing it in myself, too.

I did love that she was such a good aunt to her friend’s baby, and such a good friend to best friend. Those were some of my favorite sections in the book. I also didn’t like how she was jagging her boyfriend Eric around. The book opens with her refusing to give him a straight answer as to whether she’ll marry him or not, and that really rubbed me the wrong way. I am not an emotionally brave person, and I think it takes a lot of bravery to propose to someone. So when people are emotionally brave, I really respect that and I don’t like it when that bravery is not met in kind, or at least partway.

There were, however, lots of things the narrator said that I underlined or otherwise annotated in my book, because they struck me or resonated with me or because I strongly disagreed.

Genetics aside, I don’t see myself having kids.
Not one? Eric asks.
If I had one, I would want to have two, and if I had two, I would want to have zero. 

I relate to this so much. Not that I can have children, but still.

I don’t remember ever seeing my parents hold hands, or hug, or kiss. I wonder if this is why when I hear affectionate words, I want to jump off tall buildings despite a crippling fear of heights.

I could have written this. All of it is true for me as well. I despise toxic cultures/cultural interpretations of religions that teach that any act of affection between partners is sexual and therefore immodest and shouldn’t be performed within eyesight of anyone else, or cultures that generally discourage the physical display of affection.

Not seeing that kind of affectionate, every day intimacy is harmful. It is harmful to developent, it is harmful to creating healthy emotional and physical relationships, it just a terribly harmful thing in so many ways.

I have never seen my parents hug or hold hands or kiss or even lean on each other, or rest their hands on the other person.

When a man does that to me – a man I like, a man I want doing that to me – my natural reaction is to stiffen and put an end to it. Even if I really, really want it. What usually ends up happening is that I tense up and spend the next moment talking myself out of being tense, and I can’t enjoy it, and he picks up on it and retreats.

It’s not a good way to exist. It is isolating and lonely.

They don’t know that Eric and I are living together. I am terrified to tell them. I can’t imagine telling them.

Girl, same.

I realize that I am no good at this wheel taking. There is fear and guilt.
I can’t stand it when they are mad at me. I can’t sleep, and once I can’t sleep, I can’t do much of anything else. 

I relate to this as well. Especially with my dad (who has never done anything more than just raise his voice at me, just so we are clear). If I know my dad is mad at me, suddenly, I’m 4 years old again and terrified (by a man’s loud voice and general displeasure, which has a way of cutting instantly through all my self-worth).

Parents are parents, and to people who are not their children, they are people. 

This could be an adage in our culture, as well. It is so difficult sometimes to see our parents as just people.

Don’t stare, my mother tells me when I am a child and looking around. I see a couple kissing on the buss. I see old people holding hands. I am fascinated by these public displays of affection because it feels like watching a crime.

Exactly! When you’re not used to seeing physical displays of affection, watching others engage in them does feel like watching a crime. She described the thought so perfectly. And of course, people who grew up seeing their mom and dad kiss every morning when everyone came down for breakfast, or holding hands during a walk to the park, or sitting close together at a family gathering have no idea what the hell the rest of us (who relate to this) are talking about.

A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so. 

I don’t know if this is true but I’ll take the author’s word for it and in that case, yikes. It seems like so much pressure.

I don’t have to make any grand contribution to law, I don’t think, by any particular age. I mean, sure, everyone wants to have an appellate win or two (or more) under their belt. For me, it’s enough that I tried a case before a federal jury at the age of 26; that one of my cases made it up (almost) to the Supreme Court of the United States, and that I’m skilled at both state and federal work. I’ll see what else I’m able to accomplish in my career, but honestly, it just doesn’t work that way for us. Sure, we rack up achievements, but we are not expected to make any “great contributions.”

Why encourage this of us, to constantly rebel, without understanding why some of us do not?

By my parents’ and my community’s standards, I am a rebel. I travel around the country by myself, I represent “dangerous criminals,” I’m thirty and unmarried, I have no problem calling out misogynist aspects of our culture/religious interpretation at dinner parties, and I’m encouraging waves of young Desi women to go to law school and enter into litigation.

By my white friends’ and colleagues’ standards, I’m a subservient little doormat to whatever my parents want.

I’m sick of explaining myself, explaining our culture, so I don’t anymore. But there needs to be a way more nuanced understanding of why people don’t rebel sometimes to the standards others set.  Wang wrote about how the Americans see the individual, and the Chinese see familial piety. It’s the same with us. I’m too individualistic for my parents, and too into familial piety for my white/American peers.

To be smart and beautiful, says the best friend, and this is probably very close to what every woman wants. I too had high hopes of growing up into both a genius and a bombshell.
To be Marie Curie but then to also look like Grace Kelly.

God, how relatable, huh? For me, it’s to be Andrea Lyon (a friend and mentor, I’m privileged to say) but then to also look like Mila Kunis.

Ha!

This was an excellent book, and I’m so glad I read it. I’m so glad that BOTM offered a book that was by a woman of color. I’m so glad I was able to share my thoughts here with you.

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