Rachel Khong’s novel about a quarter-life-crisis is weird, funny, and sneakily devastating. When 30-something protagonist Ruth returns home after a messy breakup to help care for her father, who has recently developed dementia, she finds that her family is quietly falling apart; in response, Ruth begins to keep an aimless diary of her days that’s full of meditations on the meaning of life, love, and memory. (Also, terrible vegetable puns.) It’s utterly delightful.
Read my full review below.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
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- publisher: Henry Holt and Company (imprint of Macmillan)
- publication date: July 11, 2017
- isbn: 978-1-250-10916-3
- length: 208 pages
I’m wary of “quirky” books, because I often think “quirkiness” is a cover for sloppy craft that tosses random happenstance together and calls it a plot. If you feel the same, I’m sorry to tell you that Goodbye, Vitamin is very California-quirky. (At one point, protagonist Ruth and her best friend Bonnie get paid to seat-fill for the Oscars.) But I’d also like to reassure you that Rachel Khong knows what she’s doing, and that I am deeply in love with this book, and hope you will be, too.
With a title like Goodbye, Vitamin, humor is to be expected; what I didn’t expect was this novel’s absorbing, infectious charm.
The conceit is that Ruth returns home after painful split with her ex-fiancé in order to care for her aging father who has just been diagnosed with dementia. While she also shares meaningful moments with her mother and brother (and a cute grad student named Theo), Goodbye, Vitamin is squarely a father-daughter novel. The perspective flits between Ruth’s first-person and an almost-second-person–you, Ruth’s father–for whom the reader is a sort of proxy.
There is something uniquely frightening about memory loss, and that fear anchors the novel, epitomized by Ruth’s obsessive search for “dementia-fighting” foods like jellyfish, juice shots, and cruciferous vegetables. She knows she’s prolonging the inevitable, but it can’t hurt, right?
Meanwhile, her father leaves scraps of paper for her to find; his own diary of Ruth’s childhood, full of chestnuts like:
Today you asked me what “Dick” meant, and while I was deciding what direction I should take, you said, “Mom said you were one.”
Ruth’s devotion to her father, despite his faults–she quickly discovers that he was a philanderer and alcohol abuser during her years-long period of family avoidance–is deadly serious, lending credibility to the more whimsical plot points, including the creation of a fake class for her father (a former history professor) to “teach,” complete with real grad students.
Sure, I don’t really believe that grad students would devote so much time to the charade, especially when it involves expensive outings to Disneyland, but Khong’s distinctive prose style–which always feels firmly in media res–left me eager to play along.
For every dose of whimsy, there were also painful moments that cut me to the bone. Ruth’s life is perhaps more off the rails than average, but her anger that life has been nothing like she hoped it would be is universally intelligible. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ruth’s relationship with her mother, who is both an aspirational and pitiable figure; a beautiful, competent woman deeply hurt by her husband’s carelessness and by her daughter’s years-long estrangement.
No family is perfect is a truism, but Khong elevates the sentiment with every bizarre particularity of this family–recognizable not for their actions but rather, for the universal harm and humor they enact upon each other.
The novel is short at 208 pages; consider it an infusion of insight as potent as a cabbage juice shot–but far more pleasant. 5/5 stars.
My copy of Goodbye, Vitamin came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.