We gave it an A
Chemistry — that thing that is so precise in science and so mysterious and mutable in love—becomes the rich, slippery subject of one of the year’s most winningly original debuts. The author, Weike Wang, holds a Ph.D. in cancer epidemiology from Harvard — a wildly impressive degree that would presumably be wasted, or at least seriously underutilized, in the pursuit of writing novels. But a loss for public health is an unexpected gift for literature: It’s tempting to call Chemistry a gem, though Wang might prefer lonsdaleite, a mineral “58% harder than diamond [that] forms only when meteorites smash themselves into Earth.”
Her unnamed narrator has recently endured her own crash landing: a laboratory freak-out that ends in screaming, smashed beakers, and a sudden, not entirely voluntary sabbatical from her graduate program. The incident leaves her somewhere between existentially panicked and numb, but her live-in boyfriend is a peach about it. He’s great about everything, actually: Redheaded, rangy, and loyal to a fault, he’s essentially an Irish setter in human form. (They share a real dog, too, a dizzy and equally adoring goldendoodle, though he’s decidedly less gifted in the brains department.) There is also a best friend in Manhattan dealing with personal issues of her own — motherhood, careerism, infidelity — and intermittent flashbacks to the flinty Chinese-immigrant parents whose expectations for their only child seem to haunt the narrator far more than the idea of abandoning her long, expensive years of study does.
Instead, she tilts all that hard-won knowledge into the wreckage of her upturned world: Nearly every page is marked by some kind of breezy scientific anecdote or aside — pithy, casually brilliant ruminations on everything from meiosis and mitochondria to what makes rockets fly. That it’s all so accessible and organic to the story is one of the book’s most consistent pleasures. So is the texture and tone of Wang’s language, a voice so fresh and intimate and mordantly funny that she feels less like fiction than a friend you’ve known forever — even if she hasn’t met you yet. A