Chemistry (Hardcover)

A novel

By Weike Wang

Knopf, 9781524731748, 224pp.

Publication Date: May 23, 2017

List Price: 24.95*
* Individual store prices may vary.

June 2017 Indie Next List

“The unnamed narrator of Wang's winning and insightful novel is working on her PhD in synthetic organic chemistry, but the chemistry she really needs to learn is the one that makes relationships click. The prodigy daughter of high-achieving Chinese American parents, she's always strived to meet their demanding expectations. Then, suddenly, she just can't. Her lab work falters. She's unable to accept or decline her boyfriend's marriage proposal. But when she has a breakdown and loses in both academia and in love, she finally realizes how angry she is. Coming to terms with her past becomes her next project, and soon she can see her parents in a new light - and they aren't the fierce tiger couple they'd always seemed to be.”
— Laurie Greer (E), Politics & Prose Books and Coffee Shop, Washington, DC
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Summer 2018 Reading Group Indie Next List

“What a delight. In the first few pages, you’ll be struck by the unusual narrative voice; after a few pages more, you’ll be absolutely hooked. There’s so much comedy in this story, about a young chemist navigating the pressures of her academic field along with the confusion of her first serious adult romance, but it’s deliciously dry, sly humor. Give a copy to every high-achieving, socially awkward person you know—and all the people who love them.”
— Mary Laura Philpott, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN
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Description

Named by The Washington Post as a Notable Work of Fiction in 2017 and by Entertainment Weekly as a Best Debut Novel of 2017
Named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Ann Patchett on PBS NewsHour, Minnesota Public Radio, Maris Kreizman, and The Morning News

National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Honoree

Longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize

A luminous coming-of-age novel about a young female scientist who must recalibrate her life when her academic career goes off track; perfect for readers of Lab Girl and Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You.
 

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.


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. She is a 2017 “5 Under 35” honoree of the National Book Foundation.


Praise For Chemistry: A novel

Chemistry starts as a charming confection and then proceeds to add on layers of emotional depth and complexity with every page. It is to Wang’s great credit that she manages to infuse such seriousness with so much light. I loved this novel.” —Ann Patchett

“The most assured novel about indecisiveness you’ll ever read . . . The title Chemistry also, of course, alludes to love. But in Chinese the word for ‘chemistry’ translates to ‘the study of change.’ The novel is equally about the narrator’s slow self-transformation and her relationship with [her boyfriend] Eric. Both have arrived at a catalytic moment: ‘the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path’ . . . Chemistry is narrated in a continual present tense, which, in conjunction with Wang’s marvelous sense of timing and short, spare sections, can make the novel feel like a stand-up routine. Personal crises are interrupted, to great effect, with deadpan observations about crystal structures and the beaching patterns of whales. The spacing arrives like beats for applause . . . Despite its humor, Chemistry is an emotionally devastating novel about being young today and working to the point of incapacity without knowing what you should really be doing and when you can stop. I finished the book and, after wiping myself off the floor, turned back to an early passage when the narrator asks her dog, ‘What do you want from me? You must want something.’ It doesn’t.” —Jamie Fisher, The Washington Post

"A novel about an intelligent woman trying to find her place in the world. It has only the smallest pinches of action but generous measures of humor and emotion. The moody but endearing narrative voice is reminiscent of Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation and Catherine Lacey's Nobody is Ever Missing. Fans of those novels will find a lot to enjoy here . . . Moments of tenderness are repeatedly juxtaposed with moments of misery . . . The [narrator] tells us there is a phrase for family love in Chinese that in translation means 'I hurt for you.' This love, rather than romantic love, feels like the true subject of the book. Chemistry will appeal to anyone asking themselves, How do I create the sort of family I want without rejecting the family I have?" Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, The New York Times Book Review 

“Beguiling . . . with wry observation and witty distraction . . . A funny, idiosyncratic story of a young woman with big brains, big family baggage and a wonderfully fresh voice sorting out a world of science, language, dogs, counseling therapy, a BFF and her baby, SAT tutoring, Boston weather, cases of wine, TV cooking shows--and piecing together the right chemistry in her life . . . Wang’s narrator spices her daily ups and downs with a little bit of science here, a Chinese language oddity there, shrink-talk and a running stream of observations about parents and child- and dog-rearing . . . Wang has an astute feel for the deep, scary uncertainties of a young, talented woman trying to shake off a demanding family and a derailed career and relationship. Chemistry is full of surprises--its many digressions congealing to yield an impressive literary blend.” --Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness

"One of the year’s most winningly original debuts . . . 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. Grade: A" —Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

“Outstanding . . . Unfolding in brief chapters studded with observations about her childhood and scientific facts, Chemistry may be the funniest novel ever written about living with depression.” —Kim Hubbard, People, “The Best New Books”

“Wang’s heroine, a young Chinese-American woman who is emotionally and professionally adrift, feels crushed by the expectations of her demanding parents, and by the pressures of her prestigious Boston university and her competitive male-dominated field, synthetic organic chemistry. She is also deeply ambivalent about marriage and committing to a career in synthetic organic chemistry. Chemistry is a sort of anti-coming-of-age story: Instead of figuring out how to be an adult, the narrator learns to live with uncertainty and indecision . . . In a deadpan voice, Wang drops in arcane chemistry trivia and captures the quirky, cutthroat subculture of science graduate students.” —Alexandra Alter, The New York Times

“What happens when you get a degree in chemistry from Harvard, but feel a competing pull to the world of narrative? You write a novel about this combustible state: Chemistry is a funny, wise debut about the heartache of uncertainty and the struggle to please others while forging one’s own path.” Nando Pelusi, Ph.D., Psychology Today

“A spiky, sparkling slip of a novel . . . with a singular take on love, lab science, and existential crises.” —Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly “10 Best Books of the Year So Far”
 
“A genuine piece of literature: wise, humorous, and moving.” —Ha Jin
 
“With its limpid style, comic verve, and sensitive examination of love, need, and aspiration, this exquisitely soul-searching novel is sure to be one of the most outstanding debuts of the year.” —Sigrid Nunez

“Weike Wang’s voice is indelible—hypnotic, mesmerizing, and strange in the best possible way. In Chemistry she creates a fully realized portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis, illuminating a corner of the human experience that’s woefully underexplored. By the last page I was devastated, transported, and craving more.” —Emily Gould, author of Friendship

“How do we learn to love if we haven’t been taught? That question seems to be the nucleus of Chemistry. Wang challenges the conventions of the marriage plot: the story begins with a proposal, falls into an alienating existential crisis, and ends in the morally ambiguous territory of self-actualization. The force of the novel is the narrator’s perfectly-executed voice, unflinching and painfully self-aware as she deconstructs her life—disastrously, bravely—to see if there is anything at the bottom she can hold on to.” —Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter

Chemistry (appropriately enough) explodes the stereotype of the model minority. Wang’s voice is a revelation—by turns deadpan and despairing, wry and wrenching, but always and precisely true.” —Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl and The Fortunes

Chemistry is a sly and infectious book. I read it quickly, galloping through the pages, marveling at the insight and the charm of this narrator as she uses her scientific impulses to explore the world around her and, ultimately, herself.” —Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans

“A rebellious debut: a wry, subtle, deeply attuned examination of love, immigration, family, and chemistry in all its forms. With its dark wit, probing self-examinations, and profound meditations on science and the soul, this is a novel for fellow seekers.” —Sarah Gerard, author of Binary Star and Sunshine State
 
“Science is an excellent lens for Weike Wang’s look at a young woman’s wonderfully skewed experience of love, ambition, loyalty, and, of course, chemistry. The pressure to excel, as applied by immigrant parents, comes up against basic questions of self-discovery: ‘Find me the thing that I can make the greatest impact in and I will do that thing,’ says the chemistry whiz who has gone off course. This very appealing narrator is funny and original, and the novel is filled with compelling information from the world of chemistry as well as gems such as Einstein’s thoughts on love, communicated to his daughter. In a word, this debut is: elemental.” —Amy Hempel

Chemistry casts a rare spell, some alchemic mixture all its own. Though her ingredients are familiar—being young, uncertain, and estranged—Weike Wang gives them to us anew; her wry, off-beat vision demands that we look again, as if for the very first time.” —Casey Schwartz, author of In the Mind Fields

“A clipped, funny, painfully honest narrative voice lights up Wang’s debut about a Chinese-American graduate student who finds the scientific method inadequate for understanding her parents, her boyfriend, or herself . . . Wang [has a] gift for perspective.”Publishers Weekly
 
“If you loved both the brains and the heart of Jenny Offill’s short yet emotionally epic novel Dept. of Speculation, Chemistry will be your next favorite read. Wang’s eloquent debut is full of short vignettes on the nature of love and overbearing families and academic failures and complicated relationships, all told through the lens of science. Chemistry proves to be a useful metaphorical tool for describing the messy moments in life for which no perfect formula exists.” —Maris Kreizman, Vulture Spring Preview 2017
 
“Endearing…Equal parts intense and funny…The narrator’s voice—distinctive and appealing—makes this novel at once moving and amusing, never predictable. A wry, unique, touching tale of the limits of parental and partnership pressure.” Kirkus 

“Beguiling . . . wry and witty . . . A funny, idiosyncratic story of a young woman with big brains, big family baggage and a wonderfully fresh voice sorting out a world of science, language, dogs, counseling therapy, a BFF and her baby, SAT tutoring, Boston weather, cases of wine, TV cooking shows—and piecing together the right chemistry in her life . . . Wang’s narrator spices her daily ups and downs with a little bit of science here, a Chinese language oddity there, shrink-talk and a running stream of observations about parents and child- and dog-rearing . . . But her coping and sorting is not just about being clever—Wang has an astute feel for the deep, scary uncertainties of a young, talented woman trying to shake off a demanding family and a derailed career and relationship . . . Chemistry is full of surprises—its many digressions congealing to yield an impressive literary blend.” —Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness

“There is the chemistry of elements and the chemistry of love. Wang’s first person narrator swings between the two [in a] story that unfolds as a collage of memories and musings. What matters is the narrator’s refreshing openness to her world and her shunning of readymade answers. Complicating detours that arise from culture and race provide depth and density. But throughout, it’s her personal struggles that impel her curiosity about the ways past influences impact present choices. One way or another, we’ve all been there.”—Dan Dervin, The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star

“A graduate student in chemistry at a rigorous Boston-area university, the sharp, self-aware narrator of this engaging work is having doubts about her career aspirations and her boyfriend. Named a ‘Most Anticipated Novel of 2017’ by Entertainment Weekly, the Millions, and Bustle, and they were right.” —Library Journal

“In this debut novel, a graduate student in chemistry learns the meaning of explosive when the rigors of the hard sciences clash with the chronic instability of the heart. A traditional family, a can’t-miss fiancé, and a research project in meltdown provide sufficient catalyst to launch the protagonist off in search of that which cannot be cooked up in the lab.” The Millions, “Most Anticipated of 2017”

“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 work has [a] 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 . . . A capably crafted, thoughtful novel.” —Claire Fallon, Huffington Post

“A poignant tale of self-discovery that anyone who’s ever felt a little lost will relate to.” —Jarry Lee, BuzzFeed, “22 Incredible New Books You Need to Read This Summer”



“It’s a laugh-out loud marvel. But that doesn’t mean it’s not intense—and that wry intensity is underscored by Wang’s writing style, a kind of staccato on the page. Wang’s spare prose makes all of her emotions—both happy and sad—pack all the more punch. Sprinkled throughout are tidbits about chemistry that double as metaphors for all sorts of human emotions—I loved them and I’m definitely not a science girl. Seeing the world through the lens of chemistry is novel, if only as a reminder that the messiness of life follows no particular formula.”—Leigh Haber, Book of the Month Club

“With her academic career unraveling and an unanswered proposal from her boyfriend looming, Wang’s narrator-- a young, female scientist—throws comfort and predictability to the wind, finally daring to ask herself what she really wants out of life.” —E. Ce Miller, Bustle, “15 New Authors You’re Going to Be Obsessed With This Year”

“A longstanding complaint I’ve had with so-called literary fiction is that it too rarely invents mathematicians, or scientists, perhaps because most writers know little about either field. (Delightful exceptions: Catherine Chung’s A Forgotten Country, Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, Jeanette Winterson’s Gut Symmetries.) Chemistry looks like a worthy addition to the line-up.” —R.O. Kwon, Electric Lit “34 Books by Women of Color to Read This Year”