Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

I’m moving home, and reminding myself constantly that, “coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving,” (Terry Pratchett said that.) I stayed up reading overnight yesterday; or this morning. It felt good. Been a while since I did that. Then I ranted about the book on Goodreads. Sharing the rant here, too! A rare long review.

Amazon Blurb: Ruth is thirty and her life is falling apart: she and her fiancé are moving house, but he’s moving out to live with another woman; her career is going nowhere; and then she learns that her father, a history professor beloved by his students, has Alzheimer’s. At Christmas, her mother begs her to stay on and help. For a year. Goodbye, Vitamin is the wry, beautifully observed story of a woman at a crossroads, as Ruth and her friends attempt to shore up her father’s career; she and her mother obsess over the ambiguous health benefits – in the absence of a cure – of dried jellyfish supplements and vitamin pills; and they all try to forge a new relationship with the brilliant, childlike, irascible man her father has become

Disclaimer-ish: Okay, I want to get this out of the way – this book is nothing like the ‘kind of books’ I read, if all those many kinds can somehow be clubbed together as one thing that this book is not. Which is also to say that if this book were a ‘typical’ example of some genre, I am fairly certain I have no clue which, or how it lives up to others like it. Yep, the strange and uncalled-for disclaimer ends here. The obsessing and fawning and oohing begins –

Rant: I LOVE THE BOOK. It is so emotional. This is going to sound like a tangent, but bear with me. One of my favourite high school teaching moments is asking students to decide what the ‘sigh’ at the end of Frost’s Road Not Taken stands for – is it regret, relief, frustration, helplessness, or just a resigned acceptance, even an ironic celebration, of the inevitability of life taking its course. For me, it’s the last, always has been. This book is Frost’s resigned sigh stretched/packed into a novel.

I am someone who tends to live in the past, if I can help it; against my own better judgement. Tonight (or this morning, it’s past sunrise!) I am delighted that the book found me – on the precipice of a major life change, I think I needed to be told that I should salvage the present, and look up and away from that inevitable yearning for the past. I couldn’t stop reading it! I think I might read it all over again, just to see what I missed in my haste to devour it.

Khong does interesting things with language. She describes the main character’s attempts to make a relationship work as “grotesque, like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.” I came to a halt here at the ridiculous image. A simile shouldn’t distract you from the main prose and make you pause and puzzle over it, should it? Isn’t seamlessness a desired quality in a narrative? But. Tell me this didn’t make you smile! What a weird thing to say. Then there’s a passing comment about gutsy seagulls which look like Jack Nicholson, what with their piercing stares. I don’t think I will ever be able to look at a seagull or Jack Nicholson the same.

I made so many notes! Invented yoga poses, sabre-toothed squirrels, jokes hinged on a play on punctuation, and pronunciation, and pink loofahs. I just couldn’t steal away from the book to update my highlights on Goodreads or anything – and that’s a good sign right there.

An interjection of quotes:

Today we walked past a café’s colorful chalkboard and you asked me,
“Why is that sun wearing a bra on his face?”
“Those are sunglasses,” I told you.

~
“I’m just saying, if I were you, I’d forget about him,” she said. If I were you is something I’ve never really understood. Why say, “If I were you”? Why say, “If I were you,” when the problem is you’re not me? I wish people would say, “Since I am me,” followed by whatever advice it is they have.

~
I rip up the page. I mean to throw the pieces away but can’t. I put the pieces into my pocket to throw away later, or to forget to take out of my pocket and have destroyed by the washing machine.
It’s all so messed up. I think what it is, is that when I was young, my mother was her best version of herself. And here I am, now, a shitty grown-up, and messing it all up, and a disappointment.
What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person.
Here’s the fear: she gave to us, and we took from her, until she disappeared.

Rating: So why 4 stars? Some parts of the book are stretched a little too thin. One has to take the level of detail with a pinch of salt – the narrator’s dad’s journals chronicling her childhood weirdnesses are too unrealistic. Children do absurd things, but no child does so many absurd things, so consistently, all in one day – for so many days. It’s quirky, but the narrative framework is a flimsy support for it. The “fake classroom sessions” set up for the narrator’s dad also are impossible to pull off with such non-chalance. All the “side characters” unite in a mission to keep up a semblance of ‘normalcy’ for this man suffering from dementia; and the lengths they go to do it are over the top and forced. A small issue. If it was a book that was driven by the plot, it would matter more – but it’s not.

Recommendation: The book is not ‘ha-ha’ funny, but funny in the same sense as “life is funny!” A summary wouldn’t do this book justice, so I haven’t written one. I mean – what’s up there in the description is as much as anyone could say and it’s not enough. It’s not a book about breakups, or parents, or health, or Alzheimer’s or loss or memory – though it has all of that. You need not satisfy specific ‘experience credentials’ to get this book. You just need to have lived a little.

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