Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel by Rachel Khong (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017. 208 pp)
Rachel Khong grew up in Southern California and holds degrees from Yale University and the University of Florida. From 2011 to 2016, she was the managing editor then executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, Joyland, American Short Fiction, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and California Sunday. She lives in San Francisco.
The Bowl of Mixed Nuts
It all started with a pill in the mixed nuts. For years, the one rule by which we lived centered on how my grandparents would bestow gastrologic riches upon visiting family. Good food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All manners of treats, baked goods, homemade ice creams.
Family. Friends. Friends of friends. They all wanted to spend a weekend with my grandparents. Granted, the idyllic shores of Orcas Island, a view of Mount Baker, and the promise of starry nights certainly held sway.
Arrivals portion out over the course of the day. Friends and family members tying up loose ends at work at various intervals, catching ferries at different times depending on walk-on or drive-on status. My grandparents wait patiently, the cabin/lodge/house warmed and prepped for its latest large gathering. After hugs, kisses, jovial greetings and descriptions concerning ease of travel, luggage lugged to specific bedrooms, family and friends congregate around the kitchen island, taking in the views, and catching up on the stressful life situations left behind, off-island.
A Sea Chance in the Snack Shared Amongst Friends
No matter the time of day, the first matter of fueling after long travels focused on the bowl of mixed nuts on that kitchen island.
This uncle has a new job, describing his day-to-day between crunching a handful of mixed nuts. That cousin just started high school, picking out the cashews because her parent’s picky eating habits facsimiled into her praxis.
And so, the stray pill in the bowl of mixed nuts signaled sea change in the family dynamic. Could the to-grandparents-house-we-go dynamic continue to flourish? If one no longer trusts a handful of mixed nuts, what else must one question in this remote sanctuary?
While reading Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, I often thought about this pill in the bowl of mixed nuts.
Irreparable Changes to the Family Dynamic
Not a like-for-like example, Goodbye, Vitamin outlines a year in the life of Ruth, a recently-turned-30 woman coming to terms with full-on adulthood, mourning the loss of a fiancé, and realizing her father’s early-onset Alzheimer’s irreparably changes the family dynamic.
In fact, Khong begins this story with a humorous-but-dark introduction to the key framing device:
“Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights. The stranger called and said, ‘I have some pants? Belonging to a Howard Youn?’
‘Well, shit,’ I said. I put the phone down to verify that Dad was home and had pants on. He was, and did” (1).
Told through a diary format, Goodbye, Vitamin introduces the central tension in the story. At home for Christmas, Ruth feels the pressure from her mom to stick around and take care of her ailing father.
Focusing on One Area to Avoid Another
Fresh off a devastating break up, such a drastic decision provides a reset button for her life.
“Today Dad revives the topic of Joel. He knows that Joel isn’t my fiancé anymore, except when he doesn’t.
The last trip Joel and I took together was to the beach. He was obsessed with the weather. He looked up the UV rating. It was unusually high and bound to give us very bad sunburns so long as we kept not discussing what needed discussing: all that had gone stagnant between us” (65).
And so, the work of reviving her father’s memory takes central stage. Ruth quits her job as an ultrasound technician and moves in with her family. A foodie (likely derived from Khong’s real-life role as editor for Lucky Peach), Ruth researches nutrient strategies to kickstart her father’s memory. Similarly, Theo, a young colleague of her father—Ruth’s dad taught history at a local college before his memory lapses caused employment termination—reaches out with an odd idea: a handful of acolytes want to act as students for an off-the-record class.
The opportunity to teach, it turns out, reenergizes her father. And, in the process, Ruth begins to befriend and grow closer to Theo:
“Sharing things is how things get started, and not sharing things is how they end. Theo is looking nicer than usual, I think, but then again, I’m drunk. Thoughts are springing to mind, and I am dropping them all, irresponsibly, like dice” (153).
When the Guardian Becomes the Guarded
Humorous despite its weighty subject matter, Goodbye, Vitamin operates as a slice-of-life story concerning a young woman navigating the way life changes as one hits 30. Responsibilities within a family shift as the guardians become the guarded. The comparison game becomes more severe as certain individuals launch successful careers while others stagnate. Consider this passage where Ruth meets an old high school friend:
“At the library, where I’ve gone to explain myself, I run into Regina, who was homecoming queen our junior year. She had hay-colored hair to her waist and I envied it. She has children now. They share names with hurricanes—I don’t know if it is intentional or what.
‘This is Katrina and this is Sandy,’ she introduces. The children are four and eight, and even so young, their expressions look overcast” (82).
Ultimately, Goodbye, Vitamin explores the tensions of these life transitions. Just like the pill in the bowl of mixed nuts signaled a shift in roles for my family, so too does Goodbye, Vitamin explore a year-in-the-life of a 30-something character understanding these changes in her life.
Verdict: 4 out of 5