(Psst, this book review is my Massachusetts pick for my Make America Read Again challenge. to read the full list of books this year, click here.)
For those of you who don’t know, my husband is a legit super genius patent lawyer extraordinaire. Not that I am biased or anything.
He and I have gone to school together since we were in middle school, and he has always aced every test, paper, quiz, and presentation. He was one of two people in our graduating college class to have a perfect 4.0, and the only one in his major (Chemistry) to accomplish this GPA, considered one of the most difficult programs in the country. He broke the record for the highest Organic Chemistry test scores from our school and won the adoration of our professor (who would write notes on his test like, “You have an incredible future in Chemistry”, smiley face included), and he had only taken that class FOR FUN with me, while I was forced to take it for my pre-med curriculum.
PS: I impressed exactly no one with my Orgo grade, but I got really good at doodling the chemical structure for TNT over and over.
So when he got accepted into Harvard for the Organic Chemistry PhD programs, no one was surprised. What we were surprised to discover, however, was the incredibly toxic and manipulative environment of the department. That’s why this book, Chemistry, by Weike Wang, resonated so deeply with me.
The intensity of Harvard’s graduate program is no secret: The New York Times printed an excellent (albeit lengthy) article in 1998 about Jason Altom, a Harvard Organic Chem grad student who killed himself with a chemical laced with cyanide from his own lab. In his suicide note, he directly blames his advisor, Nobel Laureate E.J. Corey, and his mental and emotional abuse for Alton’s depressive state. His is not the only suicide linked to this professor (who fortunately is no longer allowed to advise any students).
There have been attempts to revamp the program, setting up suicide hotlines and support networks for these students – OCD, over-achieving, hyper-intensive students, the type of students who get into places like Harvard, students who are spending 14 hour days, every single day, including weekends, and holidays in a lab, for six to eight years, running experiments that have less than 5% chance for success so that they can win the respect of their totalitarian professor, the one who is constantly telling them that they aren’t as smart as they think they are, and probably destined for mediocrity, if not outright failure.
No wonder so many of the students end up jaded, depressed, and bitter. They become brainwashed.
This is the environment my then-fiance found himself in his first semester in Boston, by himself (I was back home applying to dental schools and taking my pre-req’s). I’ve discussed before my own difficulties with assimilating to the New England way of life, and Charles had to deal with those culture shocks by himself on top of his new, stressful school environment. That year, on Skype dates and phone conversations, I saw my best friend go from the goofy, laid-back genius to a hyper-stressed and walled-off stranger.
Charles was used to being praised and complimented on his intelligence and work ethic. However, his stoic German advisor, a renowned chemist, didn’t believe in compliments. Every time I called or texted Charles, he was always in lab, constantly being told he would likely fail, constantly reprimanded if he took a day off from lab, and continuously expected to look for the wrong in his fellow lab mates. Don’t get me wrong – Charles can take criticism (he’ll tell you he hears it quite often from me, hah), so it wasn’t a matter of his bruised ego. It was the constant psychological manipulation, the subtle mind games, the endless push to make him focus on the negatives of his work.
The environment was, obviously, soul-crushing, and quite frankly brought a good bit of stress to our relationship (remember by this time I had moved to Boston and was dealing with my own stresses). So when Charles finally made the decision halfway through his second year to graduate with a masters and leave the PhD program ASAP to pursue law school instead, I burst into tears of joy. (P.S. the law school is an entirely different environment from the science grad program, and Charles genuinely enjoyed his time there and returned to his happy, sappy, charmingly nerdy self).
The author of this book, Chemistry, was in this same lab group as Charles.
“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.”
Wang effortlessly pulled me back into those days spent in the lab waiting on Charles to finish an experiment, to finish writing up a report, to finish being bashed by his professor in one of their meetings. When she describes a particularly sexist member of the lab group who states that women “lack the balls to actually do science,” I know the real-life lab mate who facilitated and encouraged the sexist environment of the lab group. When she writes of the Fortress of Solitude, a room where the chemical solvents were kept, I remember the distinct acrid smell of the room on my many visits to the lab. When the protagonist smashes her lab flasks during her breakdown, I can see the rows of them lined up along the room’s wall.
Sometimes the lines between fact and fiction blur.
For me, this story was compelling for its hint of a “tell-all” for Ivy League academia, while also being a portrayal of a high-achieving woman in science who is also trying to navigate her love life and finding a balance between her professional and personal identity. Her use of scientific facts and historical trivia to rationalize the events of her life were especially endearing – her attempts to use scientific logic to explain her breakdown were compelling and, at times, heart breaking. I also loved the references to various spots in Cambridge that Charles and I would frequent, or the descriptions of those brutal, soul-crushing winters.
But really, this story is about more than love and work. The unnamed main character does go through an identity crisis over her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, and does suffer a mental breakdown due to her psychotic chemistry advisor, but the book also grapples with family issues. The protagonist’s parents are Chinese-American, and their marriage was anything but normal, so readers begin to understand why the protagonist’s frame of reference for romance is twisted.
Wang’s writing style is blunt and truncated, much like I would imagine a scientific-leaning person with some mental trauma would talk. The only named character in the novel is her boyfriend, Eric, her anchor to reality. She also has an incredibly dry sense of humor that is a welcome reprieve amongst the relatively heavy subject matter. At times the prose does feel a bit “overwritten,” like it came straight out of one of those Writer’s Workshops assignments (and Ms. Wang did attend an MFA program), but her talent is simply undeniable. Much of the story centers around a Chinese term for familial love that translates to, “I hurt for you.” As the story progresses, the protagonist begins to discover the true meaning of that love and who she herself hurts for…including herself.
Read if you enjoy books about Women in science, books with dry humor, books in the style of “Department of Speculation” or perhaps “A Separation,” books that give you a peek into the Ivy League world.