REVIEW: Chemistry by Weike Wang

In brief: A PhD student in chemistry is confused as to her life’s path with the pressure from family and study building up. When she takes time away from chemistry, she begins to learn a new type.

The good: I loved the facts and that the narrator is both book smart and completely normal.

The not-so-good: I devoured this in a couple of days.

Why I chose it: I like reading about scientific characters. Many thanks to Text Publishing for the copy.

Year: 2018 (originally published 2017)

Pages: 211

Publisher: Text Publishing

Setting: Boston, USA

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Chemistry initially appealed to me because I thought it was about chemistry the subject. I haven’t come across too many books that have a protagonist who is a scientist. But the story is so much more than the little science facts that creep their way into the narrative. It’s about being true to yourself and finding who you are amongst happy, crazy and funny times.

Chemistry is about an unnamed woman doing a PhD in chemistry. It’s not going too well, with experiments not turning out as expected. She’s stuck in a bit of rut, exemplified by her partner. He’s finished his PhD and is looking for a job. He also has the magic when it comes to lab work. Naturally, everything is going to be successful for Eric. But one day our protagonist loses it in the lab, smashing equipment. It’s the start of the reveal of a bigger problem – who is she? Does she truly want to continue this academic path? She takes time off from the program to do a number of things. Walk the dog. Talk to the Best Friend. Start teaching undergraduate students. To her Chinese parents, she is lost and shaming everything she has worked for. But this sense of aimlessness is helping the protagonist grow and discover her own path. Not the one that her parents want her to be on, or that mirrors her partner’s trajectory. It’s nothing that can be learned from a textbook or purified and analysed. That’s scary.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Normally a no-name protagonist would bug me, but I think having her somewhat anonymous really strengthens the story. The reader can put themselves in her shoes and question whether they are following the tune of their heart or that of someone else. I loved the little scientific facts that came out as the protagonist was teaching her students (and it sounds like they did too). Her not having a name didn’t weaken the emotional punches in this book, as she talks of her upbringing and relationship issues. (The Best Friend is similarly nameless, and also highly relatable as someone who is at the top of her professional game but not in personal life).

The style of writing is also what I’d term scientific. It’s analytical and to the point. No waffling on or excess emotion – in fact, barely an emotion at all. It was like reading the most interesting journal article ever (and I’ve read a lot – that’s a compliment). Reading Chemistry makes you realise that you don’t need a lot of words to tell a story – you just need the right ones. Weike Wang has nailed this, conveying a journey of self-discovery through the eyes of a main character who initially sees everything as black and white but eventually realises grey is what makes the detail. Highly recommended.


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