Sometimes I have more luck with the Book of the Month selections I don’t choose than the ones I do; Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is one of the selections that I decided against last year, though it caught my eye. My library had a new copy of it this month so I finally picked it up. And I loved it!
About the book: Ruth goes home for Christmas for the first time in years, and to her surprise she’s asked to stay for the year to help with her father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At first her dad seems like his old self and the only proof of the dementia comes to Ruth through stories from his colleagues and students at the local college. But as time passes, she sees the change for herself. She finds reason to worry about her mother as well, and her parents’ marriage. And through it all, she’s dealing with big changes in her own life– the loss of her fiance to another woman, regret for dropping out of college, a move, uncertainty about her career. She finds unexpected help along the way, and unexpected strength within herself.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It is. There’s very little plot to this book, which is usually a turn-off for me. But it worked here.
Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated through journal entries. The style changes occasionally, but the voice remains the same. Interspersed are pages from a journal Ruth’s father kept for her when she was small– just a few lines here and there about what young Ruth did today. (Some of these entries are more overtly “cute” than the book needs, but many of them are just amusing.) The reader knows early on how this book will be structured: slightly rambling accounts of Ruth’s days, including all the events that may or may not seem significant later on. Some of it is fluff, certainly, but most of it is interesting. Ruth is interested in trivia so there are some weird factoids worked in, but even her commentary of daily minutiae is unique and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being overly sentimental.
“The fish are getting fatter. The fish, in fact, are obese. Today I see why: I watch Dad feed the fish, sit down, and minutes later, rise to feed them again.”
Running through it all is the Alzheimer’s. Even in the moments when Ruth’s father seems fine and remembers everything correctly and acts normally, memory remains a constant theme. Ruth learns about foods that help fight dementia, she compares what she remembers of the past to what her younger brother remembers, she writes about what is known medically about the Alzheimer’s disease, and she considers which parts of her life she would be glad to remember or wishes weren’t in her head at all.
“There is, presently, no single test or scan that can diagnose dementia with complete accuracy. It’s only after the person is dead that you can cut his or her brain open and look for tell-tale plaques and tangles. For now, it’s process of elimination. What we have are tests that rule out other possible causes of memory loss. In diagnosing Alzheimer’s, doctors can only tell you everything that it isn’t.”
I have to admit, even for a character who’s losing his mind I had a hard time believing Ruth’s father wouldn’t have seen right through the phony class she told him was real. And maybe I’m just too cynical but I had an equally hard time believing several university students would go through the time and effort of taking a fake class for no credit, as a kindness to an ailing professor. But that obvious plot device was the only complaint I had while reading the book, and I did nevertheless appreciate the additional characters it introduced to the story.
As is necessary in a book without much plot, the characters drive the story in Goodbye, Vitamin. It’s pretty clear which characters the reader is meant to like and which he/she isn’t, but each one is unique and brings something important to the table. Ruth and her family are the most ambiguous in terms of “good” and “bad,” as they should be, and each of the supporting characters filters the way we see the main ones. None of their stories are coincidental or easy, and I would not have minded reading another year’s worth of journal entries to see where they ended up next, though this story didn’t require more from them. I appreciated how Ruth’s experiences with each of the secondary characters all tied back to memory and the mind. It’s a focused ramble from the first page to the last.
“Memories are stored in collections of cells, and when we remember, we reassemble the cells like a puzzle.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s entirely possible that this book worked for me because Alzheimer’s runs in my family and I’m morbidly interested in malfunctions of memory and the mind. I usually don’t like plot-less books, but I was genuinely pleased to pick this one up, for the two sittings it lasted. I did take off one star for the lack of plot and surprise, but even so this one might make an appearance on my favorites list at the end of the year. It’s not the sort of book that everyone will love, but it was the right sort of book for me.
Are there any weirdly specific topics you like to read about even if they’re never wildly popular?
The Literary Elephant