Book review: Rachel Khong’s debut novel chronicles an adult daughter’s homecoming to care for her parents.
by Rachel Khong
Henry Holt, $26, 196 pp.
“Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights.” That’s the opening sentence of Rachel Khong’s debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin,” and it encapsulates the virtues of this slim, wistful book; it’s the sort that’ll break your heart but leave you smiling.
Written in the style of a diary, stretching from one Southern California Christmas season to the next, it’s narrated by Ruth, a 30-year-old reeling from a broken engagement. (“It was grotesque, the way I kept trying to save that relationship,” she muses. “Like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.”)
Her father, a history professor, has begun to suffer from dementia, and her mother asks Ruth, who’s visiting for the holidays, if she’ll move back home to help. Ruth doesn’t really want to stay, but realizes “I can’t not stay.” Just the year, she tells herself.
The author of “Goodbye, Vitamin” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, July 24, at University Book Store (1-800-335-7323 or bookstore.washington.edu)
And so unfolds the sort of story in which nothing happens but everything happens. Rachel cooks for her parents and tries to brighten their days. (This involves masterminding, with her father’s teaching assistant, a fake class for him to teach; he, poignantly, doesn’t know that he’s been fired.)
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She processes her feelings for Joel, her ex-fiancé, who quickly starts a new relationship. (“You know what else is unfair, about Joel? That I loosened the jar lid, so somebody else could open him.”) And, through reading a diary of her childhood kept by her father, she becomes reacquainted with the man he was, as well as the man he is now.
Khong, writing in wry episodic chunks, somehow makes this story never sentimental, rarely sad and ever-surprising: Ruth, a naturally funny narrator (she abandons an attempt to search her dad’s office drawers because “the [plastic] scuba divers in the fish tank are watching me judgmentally”), immediately becomes a friend.
And while a story about a parent whose mind is dimming can’t possibly have a happy ending, Khong pulls off something nearly as good, leaving her characters surrounded by warm Christmas lights and glowing with something else. Ruth doesn’t name it, but it’s love.