Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

“Chemistry, while powerful, is sometimes unpredictable.”

Chemistry makes for a quick yet compelling read. While the narrative tries a bit too hard to be quirky, I did find certain scenes and or sections to be fairly amusing. Chemistry implements those ‘in’ literary devices such as an unnamed narrator and a lack of speech marks that I find somewhat predictable. Still, the story focuses on a Chinese American woman in her thirties who is studying for a PhD in chemistry. She’s in a relationship with a seemingly ‘good’ white guy who seems ready to take their relationship to the next stage (marriage). But, like a lot of contemporary female narrators, our mc is not feeling sure of anything. She’s struggling to keep up with the demanding hours of her PhD, overwhelmed by the pressure of other people’s expectations, and confused by her own feelings and emotions (she feels too much, nothing at all). While our narrator is initially able to go through the motions of her everyday life, she eventually slips behind her PhD. Her partner begins to grow restless at our narrator’s perpetual ambivalence towards the future, and soon enough our protagonist’s life begins falling apart. As we read of her present tribulations we are given insight into her experiences growing up. Her focus on academic success was instilled in her by her parents who always seemed dissatisfied with her, even when she studies what they want her to. In examining her relationship with her parents and the way they brought her up the narrator discusses the stereotypes about Asian parents. She also talks about the everyday microaggressions she experiences, particularly working as a woc in a field that is predominantly male. The author also captures those quarter-life crisis uncertainties that make you question whether the ‘path’ you are on is leading somewhere and if it is, whether you really want to reach that destination. The narrator’s growing discontent over her studies certainly resonated with me as I’m currently in my final year of my masters and I feel academically exhausted to the point where I considered (and still am) dropping out. It is particularly frustrating to see that no matter how hard you work or try, you don’t get the results/grades you hope for. On top of that, the narrator also has a dissolving relationship to cope with. While her partner is presented as this supportive nice guy he repeatedly fails to understand where she’s coming from, seems unable to understand her point of view, and remains blissfully unaware of his own privilege (as a cis straight white man from a financially and emotionally stable family).
Our main character’s best friend, who is also nameless and referred to as ‘the best friend’, is also having troubles of her own as soon after giving birth discovers that her husband is betraying her.
While these may all sound like heavy topics the tone of this story is very much light and comical. As I mentioned above, the narrative goes for this offbeat kind of tone that at times comes across as contrived. There were numerous instances where I did not find the narrator funny. There is a running-gag of sorts where she explains a joke to someone because her sense of humor is just so quirky that people don’t always get it. I did find her somewhat endearing. For example, in this scene, where her best friend is once again venting about her cheating husband: “This is all your fault, she says to one of the posters. You did this to him, you and your female wiles. Then she moves on to next poster. I follow and apologize to each woman in turn.”. Or when she imagines what her best friend’s baby is thinking: “The baby has become sentient. When we walk, she screams across the street at other babies, baby expletives, we think. Something along the line of Goddamn it, other baby, don’t try to out-cute me. To make matters worse, she is very cute, so we have a hard time correcting her.”. The writing could certainly be effective and I appreciated the way the author articulates these difficult to pin down feelings & fears. The narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated by scientific anecdotes that certainly fitted her background. While some of her jokes were misses, and her never-ending silly witticism did detract from her actual story, there were a couple of times where I found her genuinely funny.

“It is a double-edged sword.
To be smart and beautiful, says the best friend, and this is probably very close to what every woman wants. I too had high hopes of growing up into both a genius and a bombshell.
To be Marie Curie but then to also look like Grace Kelly.”

While the dialogue often rang true to life (in a mumblecore sort of way), some of the characters struck me as thinly rendered. The boyfriend for example is incredibly generic and exceedingly dull to the point where I did not feel at all affected by his departure. And, while I believed that the narrator is lonely, I wasn’t at all convinced that she loved him. Similarly, I didn’t buy into her bond with the math student she’s tutoring. I would have liked to see more of her parents or that they had not been painted in a negative light for 80% of the story. Still, overall, I liked Chemistry. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Julia Whelan, who, bear in mind is one of my favorite narrators, wasn’t the best ‘voice’ for this. That is to say that there are plenty of talented Asian American female narrators who could have narrated Chemistry.
If you are looking for a humorous take on failure, self-fulfilment, parental and self-pressure, loneliness and connection, Chemistry might be your perfect next read. I can see this novel
appealing to fans of Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu, Edge Case by YZ Chin, and Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, all which also focus on young(ish) alienated Asian American women who feel stuck or caught in a directionless spiral. If you are a fan of the contemporary literary trend which is disaffected/directionless female protagonists who don’t feel so good, well, this title may a great addition to your tbr. I look forward to reading whatever Wang publishes next!

my rating: ★★★¼