Family & Goodbye, Vitamin
Sometimes, mid-summer heat wave, all you want to do is sit in front of a fan with an iced latte and read a book in one sitting. After weeks and weeks of being unable to read, I did just that with Rachel Khong's Goodbye, Vitamin.
A novel about a young woman who reluctantly returns home to her family after the end of a very long relationship, Goodbye, Vitamin is about family, heartbreak, memory, and illness. The protagonist, Ruth, takes over as her father struggles with Alzheimer's, her mother tries to stay away from cooking (and aluminium), and her brother resists returning to their broken family. Dark in topic, the novel is anything but in delivery. It's funny but sincere, always anchored in reality and never trite.
Goodbye, Vitamin is also refreshing in the way that it deals with the reality of family. So often we encounter the limiting, supposed normalcy of Western family life in culture and literature – the nuclear American family, the children who leave at eighteen for college and never return, who go on to become married thirty year olds with mortgages and careers and children of their own. Khong's novel breaks with that sterility and presents a messier world that so many of us actually know, allowing us to breathe a sigh of relief.
Ruth is thirty, unmarried, and has no promising career. Her fiancé has left her in mundane cruelty, she's never finished her degree, and instead of being presented as something soul-crushing or out of place in our goal-oriented world, it's just a matter of fact. She is who she is and it is not a matter for judgement. Likewise, her brother is a grad student in a dead-end relationship, and is a familiar figure.
Both characters have issues with their parents – most markedly, Ruth has distanced herself from her family as an adult, a "disappointment" to her mother. Yet she returns home when her family needs her. She helps her mother; she becomes her father's caretaker. Their family becomes one of four adults – separate but whole in its own, functional way. Not an ounce of judgement is expressed by any character towards this at any point in the novel. There is no self-deprecation at Ruth's lack of career, no social derision at her moving back home. It is an honest depiction of a reality lived by so, so many. It is human. It is complex. It is an exploration of family and illness and memory and its many shapes and possibilities.
For this, it is very, very welcome.