Chemistry: A Novel

An amusing, yet enlightening, read on what it means to be an ambitious, yet lost graduate student.


  • Can relate to being a grad student
  • In the mood for a light-hearted, yet still deep read
  • Like character-driven books

Title: Chemistry| Author: Weike Wang | Rating: 3.5/5

I loved it. Not in a way that will stick with me, but in a way that I think many graduate, especially doctoral, students can relate.

An unnamed narrator is the only child of Chinese immigrant parents. Her mother was a pharmacist in China, and her father earned his PhD in the States. Her parents expect the narrator to go to graduate school, earn her PhD, and make them proud.

She does these things, somewhat. She gets into a PhD program in chemistry, but she finds her heart isn’t into it. Her experiments aren’t working, she’s overworked, and she’s depressed. She doesn’t feel anyone understands. Worst of all, her partner is also a doctoral students, except his experiments work. Our narrator always feels she’s behind him and has to catch up.

Then he proposes to her. She declines, which at first glance seems ridiculous given how supportive and caring he is towards her. But I get her: she says she wants to do something for herself, to make something of herself, before she marries. She’s afraid that once she’s married, she’s lost a piece of herself to home and family, especially if she hasn’t “made it in life” yet.

This speaks volumes as a woman, as a human, as an ambitious academic or professional. I get our nameless narrator: she could be me, or a friend, or any woman I know. She could be you.

I think the book explores the cultural nuances of loving, yet demanding, parents. The high rates of anxiety and depression among doctoral students. The pressures of being a have-it-all woman, while not buckling under the pressure of having it all.

Chemistry is one of those books that come wrapped in a wry, quirky package, but underneath it all is a story deep and, oddly, poignant. A great read for anyone, not just doctoral students or women, but I think those groups will find it hits home a little harder.

2 thoughts on “Chemistry: A Novel

  1. Priscilla Bettis says:

    Interesting that the narrator isn’t named. Maybe that’s part of the author’s way of emphasizing the narrator is lost to others, to her parents, to her partner. No wonder she wants to do something for herself. Good review!

    Liked by 2 people

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