Reading about families struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's disease is one of the most painfully heartbreaking topics. But it's admirable how Rachel Khong brings a lightness of touch to this subject while also still being truly heartfelt in her debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin.” It follows a year in the life of a young woman named Ruth who returns to live in her parents' house as her father Howard is developing signs of suffering from this insidious disease. She's experiencing something of a personal crisis herself as her marriage recently broke apart. Ruth records details of their daily life and Howard's changes, but also finds notes where her father recalls moments about Ruth's childhood. It's a story filled with witty commentary, clever observations and builds to an emotional portrait of family life.
It's appropriate that this novel has been compared to Jenny Offill's thoughtful novel “Dept. of Speculation” because both these books build their narratives through small observations rather than a series of complete scenes. There are several threads of story like a fake class that Howard's well-meaning students and colleagues invite him to teach, the initiatives of Ruth's mother Annie for clean eating, old affairs Howard had with other women which come to light, but the bulk of the novel is composed of glimpses of odd occurrences or observations. Khong's story feels all the more realistic for this as it takes you inside her protagonist's ephemeral experiences. Seemingly inconsequential details like vegetables that Howard rejects at dinner or the term he recalls for a group of goldfish are significant because they are exactly the sorts of things we're likely to forget years later. As the novel continues, this detail builds an emotional resonance because we're aware of the fleetingness of Ruth and Howard's time together. The experience works in both directions as Howard felt the same way about Ruth's youth as he was aware she wouldn't remain his sweet quirky child for long.
The effects of the disease are erratic so there is no clear way to treat or care for Howard as he gradually changes. Khong shows the hard unpredictable reality of life with Alzheimer's and the emotional impact it has upon the victim's family. “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 has only to do with who we were around that person – what we felt about that person.” The story is a poignant testament to how we can only really savour the good experiences of family life while they last and brace ourselves for the inevitable hard times and loss. I particularly loved how “Goodbye, Vitamin” makes this sobering statement while acknowledging the absurdity and humour of the human condition.