Anyone who’s ever been unceremoniously dumped — i.e. most of us — will feel for Maya, the narrator of Meredith Goldstein’s wise and surprisingly moving young-adult novel, “Chemistry Lessons.”
Goldstein, of the Boston Globe’s very popular Love Letters column and podcast, takes a bouquet of familiar rom-com tropes and reinvents them with a STEM twist. Instead of interning at, say, a fashion magazine, Maya, a recent high school grad whose geneticist-mother has just died of cancer, spends the summer before college working in her mom’s former lab. You don’t have to be a bench scientist to appreciate the freshness of the setup. Goodbye Seventeen, hello MIT.
Still reeling from the loss, Maya gets a second dose of heartache when her boyfriend, Whit, breaks up with her just as the two are planning their first sexcapade. On hearing the news, Bryan, the sidekick who gets lots of amusing lines, points out, “This whole ‘losing my virginity’ thing is a heteronormative concept anyway. You’re too smart to buy into that.” Exactly. Still, Maya desperately wants to win Whit back, and a strategy presents itself when she discovers her mother had a secret project studying pheromones, chemicals that can be manipulated to increase attraction. Can Maya complete her mother’s work and persuade Whit to fall for her again? Maybe, but the equation isn’t quite as simple as lab notes + sneaky experiments = true love.
To its great credit, “Chemistry Lessons” goes all in on the science and — refreshingly — with characters who aren’t stereotypically geeky. And while women scientists are underrepresented in real-life labs, not to mention in YA novels, Goldstein gives Maya an impressive cadre of female PhDs in her extended family. Even better, Goldstein embraces the lingua franca of the lab, and the reader learns a thing or three about epigenetics along the way.
Like all good rom-coms, “Chemistry Lessons” sometimes teeters on the edge of plausibility. To wit: Maya needs more than one test subject, so with the help of her mother’s protégé, she conducts experiments on a trio of unsuspecting boys: a lab buddy, a YouTube phenom (don’t ask), and the ex. Maya sneaks DNA samples from each — a nibbled-on pen here, a left-behind jacket there — then concocts a serum, a kind of Love Potion No. 9, for each target. Uh, collecting DNA from clueless humans and including them in a study without their permission? Where’s the Institutional Review Board? Yes, this is fiction, but the ethical lapse is disappointing and distracting. That said, if you can suspend disbelief, the experiments themselves are a great romp — and they work to varying degrees on all three boys, providing lots of opportunities for make-outs and mishaps.
As an advice columnist, Goldstein knows her way around a sticky situation. And, it turns out, she knows her way around Cambridge, too. Part of the fun of the novel is seeing Boston and environs through Maya’s lens (she’s a native Cantabrigian): candlepin bowling in Somerville, the Suessian-like Stata Center at MIT, a secret garden above Jamaica Pond, and most intoxicating of all, the “whiff walks” past a candy factory (a stand-in for Cambridge Brands) where an entire block smells like chocolate.
And yet the beating heart of “Chemistry Lessons” has little to do with experiments, geography, or boys — really, it’s a beautiful book about grief. Goldstein lost her own mother to cancer several years ago and the passages about her mom’s treatment are the most memorable part of Goldstein’s recent memoir, “Can’t Help Myself: Lessons and Confessions from Modern Advice Columnist.” For Maya, working in her mother’s lab week after week gives her hyper-logical pursuit a deep, emotional underpinning. Like other YA authors who explore mourning (Margo Rabb’s “Kissing in America” and Harriet Reuter Hapgood’s “The Square Root of Summer” come to mind), Goldstein explores how a smart, funny narrator moves forward after unimaginable loss.
The prose helps, too; Maya’s voice is both specific and stripped-down, well suited to her scientific sensibility. But as she pores over her mother’s handwritten notes that summer, Maya realizes she’s developed her own singular way of viewing the world. Her mom’s notes “had been clinical; there were quantitative data paired with small observations . . . but my work was more qualitative — and narrative.’’ Learning to see beyond the numbers gives Maya the confidence to figure out how to be happy, quite apart from any boy.
At one point, a character compares Maya’s quest to “Proof,” the play-turned-movie in which a daughter tries to complete her father’s unsolved mathematical equation. Nah. Goldstein has a wholly original chemistry with the reader. Late in the book, Maya imagines all the breakups that “wouldn’t happen if people could just have little boosts of chemistry when they needed it.’’ For STEM-lovers or just the lovelorn, this charming novel is all the boost required.
By Meredith Goldstein
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 245 pp., $17.99Susan Kaplan Carlton teaches at Boston University. Her latest YA novel, “In the Neighborhood of True,” will be published in Spring 2019 by Algonquin Young Readers.