Rachel Khong’s debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, is a story about subtraction. Ruth, less a fiancé, leaves her job and moves back home to help take care of her father, who is experiencing dementia and has lost his job as a professor at a university. At Christmas, their family is down one child; Ruth’s brother won’t come home, because he hasn’t forgiven their father for years of pain caused by infidelity and drinking.
Ruth struggles to find her place at home until her father’s former teaching assistant contacts her, suggesting they round up some students so that her father can teach a class on California’s history. They lie and tell him that the department has asked him to lead the course, and he agrees. The students know that the class is not for credit, but Ruth’s father does not. The added wrinkle is that he isn’t allowed on campus for any reason, as the head of the department has banned him. This leads to some wonderful hijinks and high-stress moments, all of which Khong perfectly writes.
All of this—the deception, the sickness, the loss—can get heavy. Though the book is remarkably funny, Khong’s always willing to head into the storm. Her moral radar is excellent, and instead of drawing humor from her characters’ pain, she mines it from the richness of their relationships.
Khong also displays an exceptional talent for evoking a lifetime of ups and downs between two people in meaningful ways. When it comes to Ruth and her friend Bonnie, Khong sketches out a scene from their youth:
The unofficial plan had been to never abandon each other. Bonnie grew boobs before I did, but we still wore our first bikinis together. We were at Huntington Beach, wearing big T-shirts over our suits. We were fourteen. Neither of us would take her T-shirt off first.
The anecdote ends on less innocent terms—the two teenagers run away from a man on rollerblades who produces a condom and asks if they’ll show him how to use it. It’s an endearing memory turned horrifying, the type that can forge camaraderie for a lifetime.
The most powerful of the book’s relationships is between Ruth and her father. He took notes throughout her childhood, and he begins sharing pages with her. These anecdotes form the highlights of the book, like this pitch-perfect childhood moment: “Today we went over to your mother’s friend’s house for dinner. We’d asked you to be polite, so you said, ‘No more, please, it’s horrible thank you.’” Others betray the uncertainty inherent in parenting. Khong never adorns these notes with commentary, and they achieve more gravity for it. They also stand in contrast with her father’s character in the fictional present, as the unsentimental man is struggling to adapt to his new circumstances.
Ruth’s mother also proves rudderless and confused. She wants to help her husband, but she resorts to extreme measures with dubious results (like getting rid of their cookware, because she read that aluminum could cause dementia). If any of the characters are underdeveloped, she is. Khong attempts to capture Ruth’s mother’s anxiety over her husband’s infidelity and her children’s confusion as to why she didn’t leave him. It’s fascinating drama for the reader, but it whittles Ruth’s mother down in the process.
The book’s biggest blind spot is money, which is rarely discussed despite some costly choices made by the characters. Ruth’s joblessness is not a real concern, nor does her dad inquire about payment for his semester of work.
That said, most criticisms are mere quibbles. Goodbye, Vitamin is an excellent summer read, delivering both humor and emotional weight. Khong, already well-known in some circles for her work at the popular food magazine Lucky Peach, will deservedly be the summer’s breakout literary star.