The Painful Truth About The Pressures Of Academic Life

Weike Wang's funny, dark novel "Chemistry" explores the unraveling of a desperate grad student.

The woman who narrates Weike Wang’s debut novel has stumbled into a quarter-life crisis. A Chinese-American chemistry Ph.D. student, she has always expected (as have her parents) that she would progress from triumph to academic triumph. A top student in high school, she was admitted to a prestigious university and excelled at chemistry.

Now, the time has arrived for her to complete her dissertation research and claim her graduate degree. But that isn’t happening.

She labors in the lab for hours, hovering over her experiments like an anxious mother, but the results don’t come. Without results, she can’t complete her research; but she can’t force the results to come. Though maybe she could spend a little more time in the lab, right? Holidays? Weekends? Nights? Would more investment of time help her to perfect her flawed hypotheses? Would a little patience allow her to come naturally to her “eureka” moment?

Her live-in boyfriend, redheaded wunderkind Eric, is a year ahead of her and already fielding job offers from his preferred academic institutions. The creative side of chemistry comes naturally to him. Maybe, he suggests to her, that life just isn’t for her. Maybe she topped out at speedily and proficiently replicating known reactions: She’s a technician. “Who does chemistry think he is, God?” she yells in response. “If I want it to be my thing, it will be my thing.”

It’s not the only question she’s avoiding. Eric has proposed to her. “Ask me again tomorrow,” she replies. “That’s not how it works,” he responds. For a while, though, that is how it works ― she goes to the lab, walks their dog, cuddles with him at night, and he waits for her to say yes. She and Eric met in graduate school, and when he eventually told her he loved her, she shut down: “I don’t know what to say. I don’t say anything he wants to hear.” She can only be vulnerable obliquely, by spending time with him, touching him, and, eventually, giving him a burrito with the right words written on the wrapper. Now, with marriage on the table, she is again balking at openly acknowledging the depth of their entanglement.

Nor can she acknowledge that, when it comes to her research, she’s hit an unyielding wall. Instead, one day, she calmly smashes a set of beakers on the floor. She takes a leave from the program. When her parents ask about her progress with her Ph.D., she lies.

In Chemistry, the beleaguered narrator finds herself replaying her relationship with her parents over and over ― with Eric, whose proffered love and commitment make her happy yet uneasy, and with the discipline of chemistry itself, which constantly withholds satisfaction and accolades in a way she finds familiar yet miserable. Her father, who overcame a poor rural background in China to become a successful engineer in America, expects nothing from her but success as a chemist; her mother was often miserable in the marriage, but finds common cause with her husband in relentlessly pushing their daughter to scientific stardom.

This narrator manifests a statistically significant problem. Like many young Asian-American women, she’s crushed beneath the weight of parental expectations. Recent studies have shown that Asian-American women have higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts, depressed by, among other factors, the overwhelming pressure to succeed. It’s not that simple, though: Chemistry’s protagonist has suffered because of her parents, but also because of what her parents have suffered, her identification with the difficulties they have faced to make a life in America. When Eric insinuates that her mother should speak English with him, though he has been learning Chinese, she’s furious. Her mother might have hurt her, but she is protective, too, of the woman who has walked such an unwelcoming path. She’s caught in between, unable to fully identify with her mother, or with her loving, oblivious boyfriend.

Life, and even chemistry, have proven messier than the narrator allowed for as the book progresses. Her best friend, married and expecting a child, might seem to embody the right answer to her Eric dilemma, but that friend’s marriage and baby don’t provide a simple happy ending. Letting go of him doesn’t offer a simple, neat conclusion either. No matter how hard and determinedly she works, the chemistry Ph.D. may not be in the cards for her. There’s no straight line from hard work and potential to perfect success, which means she’s not equipped with the tools she needs for adulthood after all. Wang’s novel depicts a smart woman confronting an unplanned roadblock in her carefully engineered path, then feeling her way toward a terrifying unknown.

The tight first-person can feel somewhat claustrophobic and familiar ― a cerebral depressive slowly unraveling in front of herself ― and much like the protagonist’s Ph.D. project, Chemistry doesn’t astound with its originality of concept or virtuosic language. But the work has its quiet, unassuming power, as the narrator’s clinical approach and outsider eye infuses the story of her mental breakdown with both wry humor and pathos.

The Bottom Line:

Weike Wang explores a young chemist’s reckoning with her own limits and possibilities in this capably crafted, thoughtful novel.

What other reviewers think:

Kirkus: “Though essentially unhinged, the narrator is thoughtful and funny, her scramble understandable. It is her voice—distinctive and appealing—that makes this novel at once moving and amusing, never predictable.”

Publishers Weekly: “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.”

Who wrote it?

Chemistry is Weike Wang’s first novel. She has published short fiction in journals such as Redivider and Alaska Quarterly Review. Wang graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Harvard, where she also received a Ph.D. in public health. She holds an MFA from Boston University.

Who will read it?

Readers who enjoy deep first-person psychological portraits, and fictional examinations of mental health struggles and the travails of academia.

Opening lines:

“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.”

Notable passage:

“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.”

By Weike Wang
Knopf, $24.95
Publishes May 23, 2017

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

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