“Goodbye, Vitamin,” the debut novel from San Franciscan Rachel Khong, is a December to December journal kept by the main character, Ruth. She leaves her home in San Francisco to go home for the first time in years and take care of her father, Howard Young, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Ruth feels ill-equipped to look after and love her father, who is prone to anger and confusion. She is forced to come to terms with the imperfect man her father has always been, forced as she is to be his loving caretaker nonetheless.
Howard is fired from his job as a college history professor because of his dementia and worsening forgetfulness. Despite Howard’s faults, which include infidelity to her mother and alcoholism that might have helped bring on the Alzheimer’s, Ruth goes so far as to organize weekly meetings of a fake class with fake graduate students that sit patiently through lecture after lecture, sometimes the same one they heard the week prior. Her partner in organizing these meetings, Theo, serves as Ruth’s stand-in best friend while she’s living with her parents.
This isn’t just a novel about a family dealing with the tragedy of Alzheimer’s, though. Ruth is an endearing young woman who we see turn 30, although she still hasn’t quite figured things out – her ex-fiance, Joel, broke off their engagement and has a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Ruth struggles to keep it together, flashing back on their memories regularly. Howard can’t remember that his daughter is no longer engaged, either, which doesn’t help matters. She’s fine at her job, but nothing special, and she’s made her share of mistakes, including dropping out of college a semester away from graduation to be with Joel. Ruth’s mother, Annie, is also a compelling, if not well-explored, character. She is angry toward her husband for his affair and his drinking habits, but she doesn’t leave him and she still loves him, almost involuntarily so.
Khong’s debut also features journal entries her father wrote when Ruth was a kid, which help to humanize a character who might otherwise be unlikeable by showing his immense love for his little girl, with excerpts like “Today we went over to your mother’s friend’s house for dinner. We’d asked you to be polite, so you said, ‘No more, please, it’s horrible thank you.’ ”
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This fast read, while engaging and humorous and deeply touching, sometimes falls short by overreaching – some moments meant to be significant don’t make sense. Even though the characters are presented in small fragments, by the end they are well-developed and Khong has created something special. The book leaves you wanting more – more about the trajectory of Ruth’s life, more details about why Joel broke up with her and more everyday family moments that are touching and surprisingly poignant. This is a novel that brings out the themes of family, forgiveness and memories, and the fallacies they can contain.
By Rachel Khong
Henry Holt and Co., 208 pages