Monday, August 7, 2017
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong,(Henry Holt, 208 pages, $26)
“Autobiographical” feels like the right description for Rachel Khong’s “Goodbye, Vitamin.” But because I don’t know whether her debut novel is based on her real life (and because it doesn’t matter if it is or not), I’ll say her novel feels “lived in.”
Khong has crafted a believably human protagonist in Ruth, a 30-year-old woman who’s back in her childhood home to help take care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. “Goodbye, Vitamin” follows Ruth’s adventures in her old stomping ground for one year, during which she also tends to her own problems, including a broken heart and a lack of purpose.
Young adults returning home to confront their past is well-worn territory in fiction, but Khong is a skilled-enough writer to make Ruth’s narrative feel fresh and insightful. As a storyteller, she doesn’t rely on cliches or over-the-top antics to push Ruth to a pat epiphany. Instead, Khong’s plot subtly amasses, adding layer by short layer until the depth of the novel and its characters hits readers by surprise.
Khong also has a gift for crisp quips that double as keen characterization. As Ruth considers her previous engagement to Joel, now her ex, she thinks, “You know what else is unfair, about Joel? That I loosened the jar lid, so somebody else could open him.”
Another time Ruth wonders whether she and her father haven’t adequately reciprocated her mother’s love: “Here’s the fear: she gave to us, and we took from her, until she disappeared.”
And when Ruth contemplates another relationship after her failed engagement, she decides, “I’m through with doing things that don’t count. I’m through with things that don’t add up or amount.”
These memorable and relatable lines are part of what make “Goodbye, Vitamin” such an enjoyably poignant and refreshingly honest novel. Khong doesn’t try to make Ruth’s problems pitiable or tragic; rather, Ruth’s situation is presented with a straight face and rich details, so that the reader is too immersed in Khong’s lovely prose and Ruth’s engaging personality to worry about the relative originality of the premise.
As Ruth navigates her childhood environment with the eyes of an adult, “Goodbye, Vitamin” succeeds in relaying that strange feeling of being home again after a long time away. It’s like going back to class after a long, complicated summer — that strange combination of familiarity and discomfort, of adjusting and getting back into the swing of things. Only Ruth, like any adult, doesn’t have teachers and assignments and study hall waiting for her at the end of her break (if we can call it that).
Khong’s novel, then, is the perfect summer read for those of us who don’t have school to return to, who only have