Chemistry

Chemistry

by Weike Wang

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Overview

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Praised by Ha Jin as "a genuine piece of literature: wise, humorous, and moving," and perfect for readers of Lab Girl and Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, a luminous coming-of-age novel about a young female scientist who must recalibrate her life when her academic career goes off track.

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She's tormented by her failed research--and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there's another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can't make a life before finding success on her own. Eventually, the pressure mounts so high that she must leave everything she thought she knew about her future, and herself, behind. And for the first time, she's confronted with a question she won't find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want? Over the next two years, this winningly flawed, disarmingly insightful heroine learns the formulas and equations for a different kind of chemistry--one in which the reactions can't be quantified, measured, and analyzed; one that can be studied only in the mysterious language of the heart. Taking us deep inside her scattered, searching mind, here is a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524731748
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/23/2017
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 412,716
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

WEIKE WANG is a graduate of Harvard University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry and her doctorate in public health. She received her MFA from Boston University. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Alaska Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The Journal, Ploughshares, Redivider, and SmokeLong Quarterly.

Read an Excerpt

Part I

The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says, That’s not how this works.

Diamond is no longer the hardest mineral known to man. New Scientist reports that lonsdaleite is. Lons­daleite is 58 percent harder than diamond and forms only when meteorites smash themselves into Earth.

•••

The lab mate says to make a list of pros and cons.

Write it all down, prove it to yourself.

She then nods sympathetically and pats me on the arm.

The lab mate is a solver of hard problems. Her desk is next to mine but is neater and more result-­producing.

Big deal, she says of her many, many publications and doesn’t take herself too seriously, is busy but not that busy, talks about things other than chemistry.

I find her outlook refreshing, yet strange. If I were that accomplished, I would casually bring up my published papers in conversation. Have you read so-­and-­so? Because it is quite worth your time. The tables alone are beautiful and well formatted.

I have only one paper out. The tables are in fact very beautiful, all clear and double-­spaced line borders. All succinct and informative titles.

Somewhere I read that the average number of readers for a scientific paper is 0.6.

So I make the list. The pros are extensive.

Eric cooks dinner. Eric cooks great dinners. Eric hands me the toothbrush with toothpaste on it and sometimes even sticks it in my mouth. Eric takes out the trash, the recycling; waters all our plants because I can’t seem to remember that they’re living things. These leaves feel crunchy, he said after the week that he was gone.

He goes that week to California for a conference with other young and established chemists.

Also Eric drives me to lab when it’s too rainy to bike. Boston sees a great deal of rain. Sometimes the rain comes down horizontal and hits the face.

Also Eric walks the dog. We have a dog. Eric got him for me.

I realize that I don’t have any cons. I knew this going in.

It is a half-­list, I tell the lab mate the next day, and she offers to buy me a cookie.

In lab, there are two boxes filled with argon. It is where I do highly sensitive chemistry, the kind that can never see air. Once air is let in, the chemicals catch fire. It is also where I wish to put my head on days of nothing going right.

On those days, I add the wrong amount of catalyst. Or I add the wrong catalyst.

Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.

What use is this work in the long run? I ask myself in the room when I am alone. The solvent room officially, but I have renamed it the Fortress of Solitude.

Eric is no longer in this lab. He graduated last year and is now in another lab. A chemistry PhD takes at least five years to complete. We met when I was in my first and he was in his second.

Now I walk around our apartment and trip over his stuff: big black drum bags and steel pots and carboys with brown liquid fermenting inside. Eric plays the drums and brews beer. One con is how much space these two hobbies take up, but this is outweighed by the drums that I like to hear and the beer that I like to drink.

My pro list grows at an exponential rate.

•••

We had talked about marriage before. Can you see yourself settling down, having kids? Can you see your­self starting a family? I didn’t say no, but I didn’t say yes. We had these talks casually. Each time, he thought if actually proposed to, I would say something different.

At least now all my cards are on the table, he says. But please don’t take too long to decide.

•••

It has been the summer of unbearable heat. At the Home Depot, we go up and down aisles looking for a fan. Our last fan broke yesterday and next week it is supposed to be hotter. Then next month, a hurricane.

When Eric sees the hurricane report, he wonders if the people who wrote it are just screwing with us.

Why would they do that? I ask.

Because it’s funny.

Oh, right. Then a minute later, I laugh.

Patience is Eric’s greatest virtue. He will wait in longer lines than I will and think nothing of it. He will smile, while holding a heavy fan, at the older woman in front of him who has brought a tall stack of lampshades and at the moment of payment is having second thoughts. She asks the clerk for his opinion. She asks Eric. Do I need the magenta? Me, she doesn’t bother with, because I am the one with the furiously tapping foot. The woman considers some more, turning each lampshade in her hands, but in the end purchases nothing.

I tell Eric in the car that if I were to reimagine Hell, it would be no different from the line we were just in. Except the woman would never decide on a lampshade and the line would never move.

Can you imagine? I say. A worse punishment than pushing that thing up the hill.

A boulder, Eric says.

I realize what a hypocrite I’m being, to make him wait for an answer and then dwell on a twenty-­five-­minute line.

Once home, Eric sets the fan up and the dog goes crazy.

•••

Two years ago, Eric and I moved in together. We do not have a dog but we are thinking about it. What kind? Eric asks. Big? Small? I don’t have a preference. How about just adorable?

When he first brings him home, I hear the tail, long and bushy, thumping against the couch. A forty-­five-­pound goldendoodle. Incredibly adorable. When he runs, his ears flop. If we never groomed him, his hair would keep growing and he would look like a blond bear.

The blond bear loves people and this is good. But then we discover that he is afraid of everything else: the hair dryer, an empty box, the fan.

•••

Bad tempers run in my family. It is the dominant allele, like black hair. Eric has red hair. Our friends have asked if there is any way our babies will turn out to be gingers. Gingers are dying out, and our friends are concerned about Eric’s beautiful locks.

I say, Unless Mendel was completely wrong about genetics, our babies will have my hair.

But our friends can still dream. An Asian baby with red hair. One friend says, You could write a Science paper on that and then apply for academic jobs and then get tenure.

Eric is already looking for academic jobs. He wants to teach at a college that primarily serves undergrads.

Because they are the future, he says. Eager to learn, energetic, and happy, more or less, as compared with grad students. With undergrads, I can make a real difference.

I don’t say this but I think it: You are the only person I know who talks like that. So enthusiastically and benefit-­of-­the-­doubt-­giving.

But the colleges he’s interested in are not in Boston. They are in places like Oberlin, Ohio.

I am certain that Eric will get the job. His career path is very straight, like that of an arrow to its target. If I were to draw my path out, it would look like a gas particle flying around in space.

The lab mate often echoes the wisdom of many chemists before her. You must love chemistry even when it is not working. You must love chemistry unconditionally.

The friends who ask about the red-­haired babies are the ones recently married or the ones recently married with a dog. Whenever we have them over for dinner, like tonight, they think we are trying to tell them that we are engaged.

News? they say.

Not yet, I reply, but here, have some freshly grated Parmesan cheese instead.

Behind my back, I know they are less kind. They ask each other, It’s been four years, hasn’t it? They joke, She is only with him for his money.

It is common knowledge now that graduate students make close to nothing and that there are more PhD scientists in this country than there are jobs for them.

When Eric first decides to do a PhD, it is in high school. He takes a chemistry class and excels. This is in western Maryland, in a town with many steepled churches but no Starbucks. Every other year we drive three hours from the DC airport, through a gap in the Appalachian Mountains, and arrive at a picturesque place where Eric seems to know everyone. He waves to the man across the horseshoe bar, his former band teacher. He waves to the woman at the post office, the mother of a high school friend. The diner with the horseshoe bar is called Niners. There is always farmland for sale and working mills.

Sometimes I wonder why he left a place where every ice-­cream shop is called a creamery to work seventy-­hour weeks in lab. He credits the chemistry teacher, who asked him often, What are you going to do afterward? And don’t just say stick around.

•••

A belief among Chinese mothers is that children pick their own traits in the womb. The smart ones work diligently to pick the better traits. The dumb ones get easily flustered and fall asleep. For their laziness, they are then dealt the worse traits.

Or perhaps this is just a belief of my own mother.

Had you chosen better, you would have not ended up with your father’s terrible temper or my poor vision.

I don’t want to believe this but it has become so ingrained. Compared with mine, Eric’s temper is nonexistent.

Thursday, trash day. We pick the wrong streets to go down and drive for miles behind a garbage truck. It is a one-­way road. It is also a one-­lane road. But not once does he sigh or complain. He puts on jazz music instead. Listen to this, he says. But all I hear is the going and stopping of the truck, the picking up and dumping of trash, the clanking of metal bins. So frustrated am I after one song that I lean over and press the horn for him. Then out the window, I shout at the truck, Excuse me, do you mind?

•••

The PhD advisor visits my desk, sits down, brings his hands together, and asks, Where do you see your project going in five years?

Five years? I say in disbelief. I would hope to be graduated by then and in the real world with a job.

I see, he says. Perhaps then it is time to start a new project, one that is more within your capabilities.

He leaves me to it.

The desire to throw something at his head never goes away. Depending on what he says, it is either the computer or the desk.

I sketch out possible projects. Alchemy, for one. If I could achieve that today, I could graduate tomorrow.

A guy in lab strongly believes that women do not belong in science. He’s said that women lack the balls to actually do science.

Which isn’t wrong. We do lack balls.

But if he had said that to me at the start of grad school, I would have punched him. Coming in, I think myself the best at chemistry. In high school, I win a national award for it. I say, cockily, at orientation, Yes, that was me, only to realize that everyone else had won it as well, at some point, in addition to awards I have never won.

The lab guy is still around. He works with the lab mate. If all goes well, they will have another paper next year and then they will graduate.

Women lack the balls to do science, he still says. With the exception of your lab mate. She has three.

Later I ask Eric, How many balls do you think I have?

It is poor timing. We have just gotten into bed and started to kiss.

Uh, none? he says, and the kissing is over. I was hoping he would have said something along the lines of three and a half.

•••

A Chinese proverb: Outside of sky there is sky, outside of people there are people.

It is the idea of infinity and also that there will always be someone better than you.

Eric says the proverb reminds him of a story from Indian philosophy.

Three hundred years ago, the world was believed to be a flat plate that rested on an elephant that rested on a turtle. Below that turtle was another turtle and below that turtle was another one. It was turtles all the way down.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about Chemistry, the stunning debut novel from Weike Wang.

1. Eric is the only character in Chemistry who has a name; the other characters are referred to simply as “the best friend,” “the lab mate,” “the math student,” and “the shrink.” Even the narrator herself is never named. Why do you think Wang made this choice?

2. Compare and contrast the narrator’s upbringing with Eric’s upbringing. How do the similarities and differences between their childhoods affect their relationship?

3. Explore the narrator’s aversion to commitment. To whom and what is she reluctant to commit? Why? How is this fear of commitment connected to her feelings about love?

4. Examine the relationship between the narrator’s parents. What is the source of their unhappiness? How does this unhappiness manifest itself? In what ways do the narrator’s memories of her parents’ marital discord continue to impact her life as an adult?

5. Consider the narrator’s understanding of her Chinese heritage. Does she feel more Chinese or more American? How does she express—or struggle to express—­these different aspects of her identity?

6. Discuss the narrator’s perception of gender roles. What does she expect from herself as a woman? What do others expect from her? To what extent are these expectations at odds with each other?

7. After the narrator and Eric separate, the narrator asks the shrink if being fearless is “to be without fear or to have courage that is equal to or greater than fear” (112). Explore the theme of fear in the novel. What is the narrator afraid of? How does she try to conquer these fears? Is she successful? Why or why not?

8. Discuss the weather motif in Chemistry. In what ways is weather connected to the passage of time? To the narrator’s sense of control?

9. Consider the narrator’s relationship with her father. How would you describe his parenting style? In what ways is his parenting style different from the narrator’s mother’s parenting style? How has the narrator’s understanding of her father changed as she has grown older?

10. Throughout the novel, the narrator expresses empathy for and loyalty to her mother, despite her mother’s misdeeds. Why do you think the narrator is so forgiving of her mother? What do you think this suggests about their bond—­and about the narrator’s awareness of the demands of motherhood?

11. Examine the narrator’s friendship with the best friend. What is the foundation of their friendship? How have their lives diverged? What continues to hold them together?

12. On page 177, the narrator recalls how one of her college professors once told her, “Science is not a panacea; activities such as human interactions are difficult to answer with this method.” How does the narrator use her scientific knowledge to make sense of her personal life? What are the limitations of this mode of understanding?

13. The novel concludes with a letter the narrator has written to Eric in which she asks him to come back to visit, but “just as a friend” (211). Is this the ending you expected? Why or why not? What do you think will happen between the narrator and Eric? What other conflicts are left unresolved at the conclusion of the novel? Why do you think Wang chose to end Chemistry on this note of uncertainty?

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