by Reggie Peralta
Written as a part of our Tiny Review Series
Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin tells a story that probably feels familiar to many readers. Many people experience moments that feel like they’re drifting aimlessly through life, only for something put it into perspective and suddenly give them a reason to wake up and live again. Khong’s first novel follows the story of Ruth, a thirty-year-old woman who has recently disengaged from her fiancé. Feeling similarly disengaged from her life, she decides to visit her parents, only to discover that Howard, her father and a beloved university professor, is battling the onset of dementia.
Told from the first-person perspective of Ruth, the story is recounted in bits and pieces of different events in her life. The result is a narrative that flows from past to present, gently shifting from the main plot to episodes from her childhood and her relationship with her ex-fiancé. At first glance, one might expect that this is an attempt on Ruth’s part to escape the uncertainties of the present by sinking into nostalgia for the good old days, but Khong cleverly subverts this expectation by making many of her memories bring back feelings of hurt or disappointment. Ruth may not be happy about her family’s current situation, but longing for an idealized domestic life that never actually existed will do little to solve the problems of the present.
Coloring the story are Khong’s curiously detailed depictions of food, clothing, Ruth’s surroundings, and everything in between. When Ruth orders pizza for example, it’s noted that the sausage topping appears to spell “Hi,” an unexpected but welcome gesture of friendliness amidst her family troubles. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, a street doesn’t look empty, it “smells cold and familiar,” while a dead squirrel looks like “smashed cookies” after being hit by a car. Descriptions like these may or may not be pleasant, but they are certain to stir the senses of readers and make for a more active reading experience.
Playing around with conventions of campus novels and stories about absent-minded professors as it does, it’s hard not to compare the book with Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. Beyond similarities of setting and premise, the flashes back to Ruth’s upbringing and Khong’s sensuous descriptions of objects and locations parallel Pnin’s frequent peeks into its protagonist’s past as well as the florid prose that Nabokov was so known for. However, while Nabokov’s novel is, to quote Graham Greene, “hilariously funny and of a sadness,” Goodbye, Vitamin is downbeat on the surface and hopeful at heart.
Trickling with rich imagery and nourishing to readers, Goodbye, Vitamin is an authentically tender tale that mourns lost memories as much as it celebrates the promise of living.
A Santa Ana native, Reggie Peralta's writing has been featured on HonorSociety.org, The Frida Cinema, and The Grindhouse Cinema Database.