Rachel Khong's debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, is a story about waking up one day with the feeling that you've entered someone else's life, unsure of how you got there. It's an examination of memory and what happens when we try to look back and make the past, somehow, add up to the present.
It opens with Ruth, home for Christmas, recently dumped by her fiancé. She has no career, having dropped out of college months before graduating to be with her boyfriend, and finds herself directionless in her childhood home. When her overworked and overwhelmed mom asks her to move back in for a year to help take care of her father, a former history professor recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Ruth realizes she has to stay.
We watch the next year unfold through Ruth's journal entries detailing the present interspersed with letters her father had written to her when she was a child. He writes down things she says to him and comments on them honestly, constantly impressed with his daughter's curiosity and that she is continually amazed by him. It rings out as a sincere picture of what it must be like to be a parent, to watch your child become their own person.
"Today you asked me where metal comes from. You asked me what flavor are germs. You were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing. When I asked you for a description, you said: they are sort of shaped like my hands."
Ruth's relationship with her father is complicated by her own set of memories. As she was growing up he seemed like the ideal father, which made it difficult to accept a new picture of him as an alcoholic and an adulterer. She has trouble with the interim years when he was no longer raising her. In the years she spent away from home, she could ignore truths she didn't want to see and preserve her memory, but in coming home she realizes that her idea of family must change. That she must accept the shifting of the family she knew growing up into the family she has at present.
She also struggles to let go of her lost love and recounts often and in detail many of the moments they shared. Holding the past close to her until she realizes that, again, she's hanging on to memories of moments that have passed, that will never be again.
"I realized that I could remember something and he could remember something different, and if we built up a store of memories, how would that work, and would it be okay? The answer, of course, in the end, was no."
She becomes obsessed with the idea of time wasted. That the memories and all the time she spent creating them didn't matter because she has nothing to show for it. A broken relationship. A father in decline. She throws herself into her new role of caregiver doing endless research on memory enhancing foods, how to deal with outbursts, how to make her father more comfortable in his new situation.
It's the perfect illustration of the human obsession with reasons. We need to know why things happen to us. We need to understand why we get dumped, why it seems like we've had a harder shake than everyone else, why people get Alzheimer's. We're so scared to accept that sometimes there are no reasons.
At times funny, poignant, and melancholy, Goodbye, Vitamin is an utterly unique examination of the many ways we love one another, how we hurt and heal, and the many different types of light memory casts over us all.
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