In science, signs of a life in limbo

This is a very likeable work of fiction for a number of reasons. Firstly, the voice of the first-person narrator is intelligent and engaging. We know that she is brainy; at the start of the novel, she is a PhD student in chemistry in Boston, presumably at an Ivy League university.

Throughout the novel, she shares interesting bite-size information about the sciences - chemistry chiefly, as one might expect from the title - but there are nods to physics and biology too.

Each fact is presented to the reader through the narrator's quirky viewpoint. Meiosis is compared with the unzipping of a woman's dress. The narrator does not go into detail about what meiosis is, but she says enough to make the reader want to Google the term. Which is how this reviewer found out that meiosis is a specific type of cell division that results in halving the chromosome number.

Scientific knowledge expands her understanding of what life is, but it is also generated through a process of inquiry that undercuts certainties. What is known to be true can be later disproved.

In the second paragraph of the book, the narrator tells us in a neutral and disinterested tone: "Lonsdaleite is 58 per cent harder than diamond and forms only when meteorites smash themselves into earth." This is interesting in itself, but what makes it a telling instance of characterisation is its placement after the opening paragraph's description of a woman's inability to accept her boyfriend's marriage proposal.

Information from two different orders - the personal and private life of an individual and the impersonal inanimate universe - is conjoined in these two paragraphs, subtly evoking the narrator's guarded and sceptical way of approaching all things and situations.



    By Weike Wang/ Knopf/ Hardcover/ 211 pages/$41.76/ Major bookstores/3/5 stars

She receives a diamond ring and her response is to remind herself (and the reader) that human understanding of what a diamond is has changed. She sidesteps the crucial question that accompanies the act of receiving a diamond ring from one's partner by looking in another direction, or going off on a tangent.

As the rest of the book shows, tangential departures or looking away from one of life's pressing questions and paying attention instead to something seemingly unrelated is how the narrator copes with her dilemmas about love and vocation.

The book revolves around the narrator's impasse in her professional and personal life: She has problems finishing her PhD and in her four- year relationship with Eric, who has completed his PhD and is on his way to the start of a stellar career as a chemistry teaching professor. Their romance grounds to a halt when she is unable to say yes and marry him.

A story about someone who is in limbo may sound like not much of a story; yet Wang, who has a PhD in Public Health from Harvard, succeeds in making this novel compulsively readable.

The narrator is someone the reader enjoys spending time with, principally because she has a brilliantly wry sense of humour. Every setback, every failing, is told with deadpan candour.

When life presents us with hard choices or dead ends, when we cannot seem to escape our traits, our background and situations of self- sabotage, then perhaps the only thing that remains is for us to laugh at ourselves. And carry on.

This is a book about a young woman's attempt to understand who she is, to examine her innerscapes and find the answers as to why she cannot do or say the obvious things that will make her life a lot less complicated. Why she cannot be happy. Why she does not feel that she deserves happiness.

Finding the funny in all this does not solve any of the problems. But it does make more bearable the agony of not knowing and not being able to act.

Her questions lead, inevitably, to her unhappy childhood, to her parents' turbulent marriage. She is the daughter of immigrants from China. Her father's family were peasants; her mother was as beautiful and alluring as actress Audrey Hepburn.

The parents and the story of Asian American inter-generational conflict have been included to suggest causality for the narrator's predicament. However, there is an expository feel to these sections - a flaw in an otherwise accomplished and delightful debut.

If you like this, read: Bluets by Maggie Nelson (Penguin, 2017, $25.95, Books Kinokuniya), a lyrical autobiographical narrative about heartbreak and grief and a young woman's emotional limbo featuring beautiful ruminations on her obsession with the colour blue drawn from science, music, art history and literature.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'In science, signs of a life in limbo'. Print Edition | Subscribe