Funny and agonising, Chemistry’s narrator is a young post-grad chemistry student whose loving boyfriend has just proposed. She doesn’t know what to say, or how to respond and he allows her time to think about it. This state of limbo exists in her research too. She can’t find anything of significance, she can’t even be sure she has settled on the right topic or question for her PhD and yet her Chinese parents, when they speak on the phone, are desperately waiting for her to achieve, to become a doctor, to make something out of their ongoing sacrifices for her.
Her boyfriend, her therapist, her best friend, none of them really understand how her love for her mother can be so strong despite the history of their relationship. They can’t see how the narrator can love someone so bitter, so ready to abandon their child. But our heroine understands her mother’s uncertainty. Her mother hadn’t wanted a child so young, had been bright, hadn’t wanted to come to America where she couldn’t speak the language, couldn’t progress in her career, couldn’t stand being isolated with a husband she had begun to despise.
Ultimately, the narrator’s boyfriend takes a job elsewhere. She smashes the beakers in her lab, starts to take on tutoring work and goes for long walks with her dog.
What does she care about? What does matter to her? Is chemistry still something she loves? Why can’t she take the easy route and chose to marry and live with the boyfriend who loves her? What is it about him and that life that she cannot accept? When will she ever tell her parents about failing her post-doc?
Through all of this, the text is interspersed with sharp, shiny chemistry facts that play with our conception of the world around us. Her best friend’s relationship too acts as a foil to her own, and to her understanding of her mother, as the best friend experiences the pressures of maintaining romantic love during early parenthood.
It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s compelling. This isn’t just one person’s attempt to choose freely, but about how all of our choices are complicated and bound by family and social expectation. Being uncertain feels almost like an act of freedom.
I’ll be reviewing Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt next.