"Goodbye, Vitamin" opens with an unusual phone call.
"Tonight a man found Dad's pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights," recounts Ruth, the novel's central character. "The stranger called and said 'I have some pants? Belonging to a Howard Young?'"
Comedy and grief intertwine in Rachel Khong's novel, which tells the story of a young woman who returns home to live with her parents after her father's dementia diagnosis.
It turns out Ruth's father, Howard, is upset that all his clothes now have his name and phone number in them. Ruth's mother told her to mark the clothes, and her father reacted by throwing his pants, shirts and underwear in trees and bushes all over town. Ruth spends the day after Christmas taking calls and collecting her dad's stuff.
Khong didn't set out to write a novel about dementia. She had broken up with someone, and wanted to explore how our memories become a medium to try to understand each other.
"And also understand ourselves and our own narratives," said Khong. "And I was really interested in memories and how they connect people, but can also drive them apart when they don't align."
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Khong also folded in experiences she had with her grandmother, who came to live with the family shortly after her own Alzheimer's diagnosis.
"Goodbye, Vitamin" is a wryly funny story about Ruth, a young woman smarting from an unexpected dumping by her fiance. Her mother more or less tells her she has to come home to help with her father. Despite misgivings, she quits her job and changes cities to re-enter the world of family squabbles and mild eccentricity she thought she'd left behind.
Khong said the novel's understated humor is the result of her own reluctance to deal with depressing material.
"I am not looking either for straight-up comedy," she said. "I like things to be a blend, mostly, because I think each heightens the other."
And that's also why the story does not follow Ruth and her father beyond a certain point. She says she wants readers to fill that in for themselves.
"You know what's in store for him at the end of the line," she said. "It's not going to be pretty, but they are holding onto what they have at the moment."
"Goodbye, Vitamin" isn't long, but it's tautly written. There is so much in it, Khong can't sum it up easily.
She says she wanted to capture a moment in Ruth's life, but it became a story about many things, including alcoholism, professional rivalries and the kindness of old friends.
"But also about relationships between parents and children, about romantic relationships, about career-related despair," she said.
She began writing in 2010 and spent years honing the story.
"A big part of the process of writing this book was also feeling like a failure for not finishing the book," she said. She wove that underlying tension into the story too. Critics seem to agree that the effort has been worth it. The book has been broadly praised, and it made Elle and Redbook magazines' lists of best beach books.
Khong will read from "Goodbye, Vitamin" at the Magers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis at 7 p.m. Wednesday. She's only just beginning to tour with the book, but she's had some eye-opening reactions from readers.
"What's surprised me so far is that there can be such vastly different reactions to the same material," she said.
Just as memories can be so different that they sometimes lead lovers to break up.