Advanced Physical Chemistry
Penny Popplestone, size 16 chemist, has been cheated on. Again. What’s a girl to do except take a shot at the impossible – Hottie Barista Caleb, the silent-but-sexy coffee puller at her favorite spot? Susannah Nix’s Advanced Physical Chemistry was so hard to grade because the things I really enjoyed were in the A-/B+ range, but some moments drove me so crazy they fell to C-.
The writing can be completely charming, as when a friend suggests that Penny mothers her boyfriends excessively:
“You don’t iron their shirts, do you?”
“No!” Only the once.
While this, and other moments in text, got an out-loud “Ha!” from me, other parts were repetitive or clichéd. The author once used the word‘benign’ when I’m pretty sure she meant ‘banal’.
Penny’s size is, I think, not coincidentally, the average size of an American woman. Penny is written as a woman who is aware that she’s larger and doesn’t forget it, but for whom weight and insecurity around it is not the driving characteristic in her life. Her weight mostly manifests in believable details like how she brings a friend a hamburger and herself a granola bar while they are in a waiting room, or how she checks her fitness tracker app for calories burned during sex:
“Her app also claimed an average of load of male ejaculate had five calories, which she would definitely be leaving off today’s food log.”
If you want a book that centers size issues, this isn’t it, but if you’re looking for a larger woman just having a life, this tone is probably right for you. The nerd aspect of her character is more detailed than in similar books (the author gets in details such as Penny’s fanfiction) and Penny’s strategies for finding a social life when she works from home are realistic. On the whole, she’s a likeable character – except for one thing.
Penny is straight-up obsessed with Caleb’s looks. From nicknaming him ‘Hottie Barista’ to ruminating about how he’s the best looking man she’s ever seen do whatever he’s doing to being distracted by various beautiful body parts, she seems much more interested in what’s on Caleb’s outside than what’s on his inside. It’s not until over two-thirds of the way through the book that we see her thinking about their shared interests (reduced, in a lukewarm way, to some movies and reading they both do). I didn’t feel as though Penny saw Caleb as a full person, and often, she seems to be claiming him as a trophy.
I kept imagining Penny as that person who writes into advice columns and everybody reading it shrieks ‘JUST TALK TO HIM ALREADY’. At times, this refusal to discuss their issues feels authentic to both of their characters. Caleb is a clam and Penny struggles to speak up for herself, and both read as young for their ages (twenty-three and twenty-five, respectively). Towards the end, however, the not-talking feels like a plot device, since the final Big Challenge mostly relates to Penny not knowing what Caleb is up to. If it’s not a plot device, that doesn’t help the book feel more positive, because if your partner authentically refuses to talk about their biggest decisions, it isn’t a good sign.
Susannah Nix reads to me like an author with great potential whose best book hasn’t happened yet. The shortcomings here would not put me off trying one of her future books, because I believe if she gets her feet under her and grows as she writes, she could deliver a full book that is Advanced Physical Chemistry when it’s at its best, and that book will be terrific. I probably won’t look for her backlist, though.