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Is it bad to relate super hard to a narrator that other reviewers describe as “unlikable”? Asking for a friend.

(But seriously, is it?)

Weike Wang’s debut novel is a patchwork of the narrator’s internal monologue, memories from her painful childhood, and vignettes of her relationship with a fellow graduate student. Oh, and scientific factoids. Despite how disjointed and piecemeal that sounds, it all comes together into a flowing, almost hypnotic read. The narrator (never named) has a perfectly nice boyfriend and is working on a perfectly adequate advanced degree in chemistry, but both aspects of her life come up against hurdles around the same time. The boyfriend wants to marry her, but her own parents’ dysfunctional disaster of a marriage makes her resistant to the idea. To move forward in her studies she has to have an original idea for research, but now she’s not sure why she even went into science in the first place. Was it because she was good at it, or because she enjoyed it? Neither? Both? The narrator doesn’t know. So she does (what seems to me to be) the logical thing: she burns it all to the ground. She quits grad school in a scene loud and glorious in its destruction, and trashes her relationship too by way of total immobility.

I suppose if I squint, I can see how some readers wouldn’t like being inside this narrator’s head—she overthinks everything, she self-sabotages, she is seemingly incapable of normal human interaction—but for me it was quite comfortable, because it felt a whole lot like being in my own head. While I didn’t suffer the unhappy childhood or fear of romantic commitment the narrator does, her constant discomfort with the unknowableness of life resonated deeply with me. How can a person get married, or choose a career, or gain independence from their parents, when there’s no way to know what happens next? How do we ever know we’re making the right choices? If you think too hard about it, that line of thinking is paralyzing.

If you’re looking for readalikes, this book reminded me of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, even though Lab Girl is a memoir. They’re both about women in science, but they’re also about existential dread and what depression can do to relationships.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been simultaneously so repulsed and so compelled to keep reading.

Ill Will starts out in what seems a very familiar way if you read a lot of thrillers, but the deeper you dive into psychologist Dustin Tillman’s mind, the more you realize you’re not in recognizable territory after all. Neat and tidy answers, characters who are easily classifiable as strictly good or bad--you won’t find any of that here.

When Dustin was a kid, his parents and aunt and uncle were murdered. His older brother Rusty was convicted of the crimes, in part due to Dustin’s testimony. Now, years later, Dustin is a psychologist with a wife and two nearly grown sons, and Rusty has been exonerated and released from jail. Which begs the obvious question: if Rusty didn’t kill their parents, who did?

You’d think that question would be at the forefront of Dustin’s mind, but that’s assuming Dustin’s mind is normal, and it becomes increasingly clear that that’s not the case. Dustin avoids thinking about his childhood at all costs, instead obsessing with his patient-turned-friend Aqil about a spate of recent drownings in the area and trying to prove they’re the work of a serial killer. Being privy to Dustin’s carefully curated thoughts is one of the most uncomfortably claustrophobic experiences I’ve had in a while. Just what is he capable of? Does he even know himself?

If I had to describe this book in two words, they would be “deeply unsettling.” But what can I say--despite that, I couldn’t seem to stop reading.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I need a shower.

With regards to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for the review copy. On sale now!