cover image Chemistry


Weike Wang. Knopf, $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3174-8

A clipped, funny, painfully honest narrative voice lights up Wang’s debut novel about a Chinese-American graduate student who finds the scientific method inadequate for understanding her parents, her boyfriend, or herself. The optimist sees the glass as half-full, the pessimist half-empty, explains the narrator, while a chemist sees it as half-liquid, half-gaseous, probably poisonous. At 27, this aspiring chemist has reached a point in her research at which, seeing no progress, her thesis advisor suggests changing topics. Instead, she has a breakdown in the lab, smashing beakers and shouting until security guards are called. Her romantic relationship also reaches a turning point when her boyfriend takes a job out of state. The thought of relocation elicits the narrator’s unhappy memories of her family’s emigration from Shanghai to Detroit when she was five: her father learned English, worked hard, became an engineer, but her mother, a pharmacist in China, never quite adapted. Caught between parents, languages, and cultures, the narrator devotes herself to academic study. Only after her best friend has a baby does she begin to comprehend love, the one power source, according to Einstein, man has never mastered. Wang offers a unique blend of scientific observations, Chinese proverbs, and American movie references. In spare prose, characters remain unnamed, except for boyfriend Eric and the baby, nicknamed “Destroyer.” Descriptions of the baby’s effect on adults and adults’ effect on a dog demonstrate Wang’s gift for perspective—the dog’s, the chemist’s, the immigrant parents, and, most intimately, their bright, quirky, conflicted daughter. (May)