Joan is OK by Weike Wang (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Joan is a Chinese-American ICU doctor in New York City on the eve of what would become a devastating pandemic. She loves to work and is confused by inane HR department pronouncements insisting that she work less. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who packed up and returned to a better lifestyle in China once she had been fully launched. She is also the younger sister of a brother who has a very different idea of what it means to be a success. As Joan’s mother is visiting when the pandemic hits and is trapped in the US, we are treated to a stereotype-busting combination of Chinese vs American perspectives on life as the pandemic unfurls across the globe.

This is the second memoir-style story by Weike Wang. It is told in a dry, literal, unemotional, yet highly introspective style that I really enjoy. I love being treated to the inside story of what is going on in someone’s head — especially someone as different from me as Joan.

Let me be clear that this is not a story about the pandemic — the first inklings don’t even appear until half way through the book. Instead, it’s the story of Joan’s life as she struggles to figure out her place in the world. While never explicitly stated, Joan will appear to many as being on the spectrum — she is literal, she doesn’t have typical relationships, and she has intense focus — whether she is or not doesn’t matter to me. She is an interesting individual with her own ways of perceiving and handling the world around her and the author does an amazing job of detailing these perceptions and thought processes throughout the story.

Some excellent quotes:

“I listened. I smiled. I felt my teeth get cold from not being able to recede back into my mouth.”

“Relieved of any expectation to respond, I could simply listen and fun-sway along in my head. My on-service brain was the trenches, but my off-service one was a meadow.”

“Everything about him was average: five nine, 167 pounds, a face like most faces, like mine, situated somewhere between striking and hideous.”

“The surgical ICU had its surgeons and anesthesiologists, doctors who wrote the shortest and most indecipherable notes. The notes reminded me of haikus, and because I wasn’t a literary person, I called my time in this unit difficult poetry.”

“I had forgotten about crowds in China, that being in a crowd here was like being lost at sea, and for airports, train stations — for any transportation hub, any city really — for all the tourist sites… the phrase ren hai exists or “people sea”.

“The lobe of rage burst in my head like a polyp. I could feel a liquid temper seeping out of my pores.”

“Neither could imagine having wasted another person’s time or consuming every square inch of air in a room. Because Room People were full of themselves. They believed their own perspectives reigned supreme.”

“I hope you’re making some money at least, she pressed on. Because in China, a doctor makes the same salary as a public school teacher. There’s no difference in status or prestige between the two roles and the work-life balance is, of course, much better for the teacher.”

“… though his reproductive window was much longer. Did it make sense to call it a window, if after puberty it was flung open for the rest of his life?”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 18th, 2022.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 background: 5/5

A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The writing style is spare and humorous, comprised of short 1-3 page segments bundled into two large “parts.” Tidbits of chemistry, science, Chinese history, culture, and parenting are brought in as elements of the crucible which forged her personality. We never learn her name — the narrative is all 1st person — and only one character — the man she lives with — is given a name (Eric). Everyone else is referred to by label: the best friend, the lab mate, the dog, her mother, her father, the math student, the husband (of the best friend), and the Chinese roommate.

While some of the characters (her emotionless, overbearing, push to succeed parents for example) might appear to be stereotypes, they are completely personalized in backstories told through her memories. They appear quite real. One day our narrator sees a flyer in the park written by someone named “Peggy” that says: “The way you talk to your human children becomes their inner voice.” She rails at this: “Who is Peggy? I ask the other dog owners. And does she have a PhD to back up such claims?” I love this short scene because clearly her upbringing has been condensed into the inner voice that constantly plagues her.

I had a hard time reading this at first — I found the narrator to be self-absorbed and that is not a characteristic I favor in my book-friends. I felt sorry for the boyfriend who had no flaws, was very good to her, and who proposed marriage in chapter one. However, as I continued reading, it became clear that she was literally unable to cope with the life she was living and was going through the necessary steps to create a life that she could live — and voila — the story!

Very well-written, entertaining, and insightful.