Book review: Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

(image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

 

However you choose to play it, life has a way of constantly mixing it up, turning the tables when you least expect it, reversing roles, and exposing the richness or paucity of your character when you least expect it.

We all know this on some level, and yet whenever one of life’s many twists-and-turns sideswipes, often in stealthy slow-motion so we don’t notice it’s happening until it’s upon us, makes its presence felt, we’re often left feeling like someone has slapped a great big learner’s “L” on our backs and we’re back to klutzy, flailing Life 101.

It’s a dynamic with which San Francisco-based Ruth, newly dumped by fiance Joel, who has found himself new love, marriage-to-be status and nascent fatherhood with Kristin, is all too familiar as she juggles a broken heart, regrets about the past, uncertainty about the future, and winding its way through it all, her father’s creeping, thieving Alzheimer’s.

Moving home at her mother’s request to look after her father for a year, Ruth is initially not certain what to make of life’s latest curve ball.

“A long time ago I stopped wondering why there were so many crazy people. What surprises me now is that there are so many sane ones.” (P. 79)

She knows she’s selfish, that she should have stayed at college and not left for true love with Joel, which turned out to be not so true and not so long-lasting after all, and that being skilled at “all kinds” of fetal positions is not necessarily a life skill that will stand her in good stead over the long-term.

And she is all too well aware that her father Howard, who seems “normal” as she terms it but lets slip here and there that things are not continuing on their hitherto-well established course – he has been stood down from his job as a college history professor for one – and her mother Annie do not have the picture perfect relationship and family life that she has projected on them.

It’s why she’s avoided coming home very much to her hometown near L.A. and why even as she settles in as her father’s carer, with a special focus on senile-inhibiting cruciferous vegetables (her dad terms them “crucified veges) and guerrilla college classes taught by her dad, she knows she’s caught between what she’s imagined her family to be, and what it is.

Frankly, while she knows she has to make her peace with it, she’s not entirely sure how to go about that, coming to understand as she does so in spluttering fits and starts why younger brother Linus, who saw the true extent of her father’s infidelity and drinking, avoids home like the proverbial.

 

(image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

 

The sublime joy of Goodbye, Vitamin is the way it marries the day to day with the inexorable push of time, the perfect synchronicity of Ruth’s wry observations of life (which she finds are an attraction to one of her father’s ex-students Theo) and the more brutal reminders of life’s harsh edges, and the sheer exuberant joy of being alive coming up cheek-by-jowl against the less picture perfect postcard moments.

This is a highly-accessible book that reads quickly, easily and lightly and yet carries with it some fairly sage, sobering insights about the way life presents one way and then another, changing while we weren’t fully paying attention.

Before she knows it Ruth is more parent than child, but even more impactfully, she grows closer to her parents in the messy way that adult kids and parents do when they have to navigate the baggage of their past, the awkwardness pf present disappointments and life choices, and a murky reality not yet fully formed.

There is a richness, a joy and even some outright humour that wrap themselves in and around all the sobering realisations and unsettling insights, mirroring perfectly and real empathy how life is not a series of cut-and-dried separated moments but rather a messy intertwining of the good and the bad, the silly and the serious.

“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 only has to do with who we were around that person–what we felt about that person. (P. 131)

It’s this mix of profundity and silliness that gives Goodbye, Vitamin such appeal, but more than that, Ruth is an extremely likable protagonist and highly-engaged narrator.

This is largely because she is pleasingly authentic, neither terribly bad or virtuously good; rather, like most of us, mired in the best and the worst of her humanity, and unable to fully capitalise on the former and shed the latter.

You can help but really like her, warts and all, and it’s easy to see why she has kept close friends Bonnie and Grooms, and why Theo comes to really like her, and why in the end, misfires, false steps and winning goals all, she reconnects with her parents and Linus in their changed family landscape in way she might never have envisaged back in her old San Francisco days.

She’s human, trying hard to do her best, and it’s this good intention matched with sometimes questionable execution that makes her so delightfully endearing and makes Goodbye, Vitamin, one of the most enjoyable, funny, moving and heartfelt books of the year.

 

(image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

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