Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

After reading The Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli, a nonfiction title about the research and treatment development of Alzheimer’s Disease, I wanted to find a good novel to go with it. What luck for me that Rachel Khong’s delightful Goodbye, Vitamin came out last year. (It is also on the 2018 Tournament of Books shortlist.)

Ruth is still getting over a breakup with her fiancé when her mother asks her to come home for a year to help out with her father who is suffering from the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, and has recently been let go from his job as a university professor.

It was grotesque, the way I kept trying to save that relationship. Like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.

Her father is upset about losing his job, and in addition to the confusion related to Alzheimer’s, is not the easiest person to live with right now. Despite the increase in troubling episodes, there is still a lot of clarity to his days. It’s unpredictable and upsetting, but not yet entirely depressing.

When Ruth agrees to stay home for a year, she hadn’t foreseen how rewarding it would be. And neither do we, at first. The rewards of friends and family gradually creep into the story, almost undetectable.

Lately I’m more forgiving. I used to be very quick to judge the old men who don’t know that when you walk past them on the sidewalk where they’re sweeping leaves, they should stop sweeping. But now it occurs to me that maybe these old men have maladies – diseases that affect their manners – and should be pardoned.

What I loved:

  • The book is written in the form of journal entries over the course of the year that Ruth is home. Her voice is fresh and funny, and some of the events that take place are absurd. For example, she takes an empty tomato can to the garbage in the park so her mother doesn’t know she used it.
  • I also enjoyed all her “wonderings” – things that she wonders about that have little to do with the plot, but everything to do with her character. For example, she wonders what happens to all the mice that get experimented on. And she can’t stop searching the internet for “feral goldfish”. (Do it! I had no idea.)  And…

I shake the sand that’s collected on the welcome mat and wonder if the saying “To wear out one’s welcome” came about because of the mats. Did somebody visit somebody else so often that the ‘Welcome’ actually faded? Then I wonder if everyone who has shaken a mat has also wondered this.

A long time ago I stopped wondering why there were so many crazy people. What surprises me now is that there are so many sane ones.

  • Goodbye, Vitamin is deceivingly quick and easy to read. But it is exactly this that makes you realize the skill that must have gone into achieving this.
  • Ruth’s mother goes on strike from housekeeping and cooking. She gets rid of her pots and pans that may contain aluminum, and stops cooking meals. She basically lets Ruth pick up the slack, while she reads or takes up other interesting pursuits.
  • Ruth and her mother try everything they’ve read about diet and slowing down the disease. From canteloupe smoothies to jellyfish supplements to lots and lots of cruciferous vegetables. I would probably do the same thing.
  • Ruth’s father leaves notes around for her to read, taken in the days when she was young. The notes are endearing, and they give us a deeper sense of the bond she has with her father. A sample…

Today you asked me where metal comes from. You asked me what flavor are germs. You were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing. When I asked you for a description, you said: they are sort of shaped like my hands.

  • I don’t know if it’s the format or the quality of writing, but for such a short book, the relationships between the family members are complex. There are no easy answers or solutions to their differences, yet the love they have for each other comes through in their actions.
  • For a book about Alzheimer’s, there is so much joy.
  • The effort that Ruth, along with students of her father’s, go to get him back into the classroom and doing what he loves to do best – teaching – is heart-warming, heart-breaking and comical all at once. Kind of like this book.

You mentioned that there were some things on your mind, but lately you were having trouble getting to them – accessing them. You had the feeling that all the thoughts were in a box covered in tape, and the trouble was there was too much tape, and the trouble was you didn’t have the proper tools to access them – no scissors and no knife – and it was a lot of trouble – every day it was new trouble – trying to find the end of the tape.

Have you read this? Do you have recommendations for books about memory loss or Alzheimer’s?



42 thoughts on “Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

  1. FictionFan says:

    I’m glad she managed not to make it too depressing a read, but I fear it’s not for me. Maybe I’m wrong – my view is definitely distorted by personal experience – but I can’t help feeling that any book about Alzheimer’s that isn’t depressing is somehow distorting the truth.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s emotional, but not depressing. At least, not for me. I can see it being the kind of topic that affects everyone differently, though. (Especially if you have personal experience.)
      There are many moments and entire chapters that are away from the topic of Alzheimer’s.
      And it focuses on living in the moment – making his lucid spans of time count.
      (None of this is to say that you should read it… just trying to give more information about what it’s like.)

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    This was the perfect novel for you to follow up Jebelli’s book with! I like pairing fiction and non-fiction on the same theme or by the same author.

    At the library the other day I borrowed a copy of Somebody I Used to Know: A Memoir by Wendy Mitchell, which is being billed as the first memoir by someone with dementia (though I think there was one out last year).

  3. annelogan17 says:

    Oh this sounds like such a lovely book, and I loved that quote you included from the father’s notes-makes me emotional just thinking about it!

    And OF COURSE I googled feral goldfish as soon as you mentioned it-yikes!

    • Naomi says:

      They’re HUGE! There was also a bit about Hummingbird Chuck Cake – I had to google that, too. I think it was something to do with the origins of it.

      There are many notes from the father – it made me wish I had taken notes like that when my kids were little. I wasn’t very good at that sort of thing. There’s still hope for you!

  4. AYearOfBooksBlog says:

    Great review! I had this book checked out from the library and my hubby accidentally returned the wrong pile of books… the unread ones. Now I know that I should check it out again! Have you read Elizabeth is Missing or The Leisure Seekers? they book have a storyline with dementia.

  5. Lisa Hill says:

    It is too soon and too raw for me to contemplate reading this book right now, but I am glad that there are beginning to be books that humanise the person with Alzheimer’s or dementia. I think – no, I know – that some people think that the diagnosis means the end of everything and that there is no point in visiting because ‘they won’t remember anyway’. They are wrong, and by the sound of it, this book shows that the person is still a person, and that there are rewards for maintaining a relationship as best as one can.
    Two books taught me this, long before I needed to know it. John Bayley’s book about his wife Iris Murdoch, and The Things We Keep by Sally Hepworth, which is about early onset Alzheimer’s, sometimes narrated by the character who has it, and sometimes by other characters around her in the aged care home where she so obviously doesn’t belong because she’s only in her 40s.

    • Naomi says:

      I’ve heard of both of those – it’s good to know that they come recommended. I keep seeing the Hepworth book at the library, but didn’t know how good it was. Now I’ll get it the next time I see it!

      This book does an excellent job making it clear that there is a lot of value in the life of someone with Alzheimer’s. 🙂

  6. Sarah's Book Shelves says:

    I loved this one! You’re right…she achieved a lot of complexity in a tiny package. And it was so random going back and forth between the situation at home and her musings, but it was perfectly random!

    • Naomi says:

      Exactly! The way it all happened felt real. I know my own mind constantly wanders off to other places. I also tend to wonder about things that have no easy answers.

  7. Grab the Lapels says:

    I still recommend Tangles. It’s more about how the mother doesn’t know she has early stages of Alzheimer’s, and her husband doesn’t see it (or won’t admit it?) either. Then, as the disease progresses, people have to make some decisions. The artist/author lives far away and doesn’t want to disrupt her own life by moving back to her hometown. Because it’s a graphic novel, you can read it in one sitting.

  8. madamebibilophile says:

    There seem to be more and more novels on this subject coming along. I think as we’re living longer it’s affecting more people. I think fiction can be quite a good way of capturing all the contradictory, utterly confusing experiences around it all, and the heartbreak.

  9. buriedinprint says:

    So many great rec’s in the comments so far. I’d like to add Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness which does, I think, something very interesting and risky in writing the book from the perspective of the person dealing with the loss. It requires great skill on the writer’s part (and some patience and understanding on the reader’s). Also, I second Melanie’s rec of Tangles, which I think we have both already mentioned, to the point where, soon, you’ll probably avoid it at all cost! Heheh As for Goodbye, Vitamin, I do want to give it a try and I love what you’d said about the format and the use of humour!

    • Naomi says:

      You’ll be happy to know I have just put Tangles on hold! 🙂
      I’ve seen The Wilderness somewhere recently and thought it sounded good, so that one’s also being added to the list!
      Oh, I think it was at the library. Then I came home and forgot all about it. (Hmm… that’s kind of scary considering what we’re discussing…) Thanks for reminding me!

  10. The Cue Card says:

    It’s not a good sign when you can’t remember the novel you were going to recommend about Alzheimer’s, eh? I wanted to like Goodbye, Vitamin perhaps more than I actually did. It seemed rather thin in a way and I wanted more from it. But I do like the sense of humor about it. The book that got me about Alzheimer’s was perhaps Still Alice by Lisa Genova though I’m sure there are others that are good.

  11. Elena says:

    I haven’t read it, but some friends have and they loved it. And I agree with Naomi, Still Alice always comes to my mind when someone mentions books+Alzheimer’s.

  12. Cecilia says:

    Hi Naomi! Alas…I had a chance to pick this up at a library sale last year and didn’t! I wish I had. Other books I have in mind have been mentioned (Still Alice, Elizabeth is Missing). Oh, there is also the psychological thriller Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, about a retired orthopedic surgeon with dementia who is accused of killing her friend, but she doesn’t remember doing so…have you read it? I’m also planning to read Amy Tan’s new memoir where she talks about her writing process as well as her fraught relationship with her mother, who had Alzheimer’s.

    I love the idea of pairing a non-fiction with fiction!

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Cecilia! It;s nice to hear from you, as always! 🙂
      I haven’t read Turn of Mind – it sounds good! And I didn’t know that about Amy Tan’s Mother… I’ll have to look that up. And watch for your reaction on Goodreads!

  13. Catherine says:

    I’m so glad you loved this book! Wasn’t it marvelous? I loved the little bits from the notebook her father kept when she was a child. It was such a sweet, tender, but very real novel. I thought of it as heartbreaking humor.

    Someone has probably already mentioned this, but what about Still Alice? I didn’t read the book but the movie was gut-wrenching.

    • Naomi says:

      I loved Still Alice. I read it a long time ago now, and I think it was the first time I really understood what happens with Alzheimer’s.

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