This book has everything. Well, almost everything, including: domestic terrorism, international terrorism, biological weapons, the Mafia, an international drug cartel, medical torture, plain old-fashioned torture, an evil twin, Batman, romance, government conspiracies, at least three faked deaths, and a partridge in a pear tree. What it doesn’t have, despite the title, is anything resembling actual chemistry.
Its resemblance to the plot of a Jason Bourne movie is no coincidence. Stephenie Meyer, creator of the “Twilight” teen-vampire-romance franchise, is a certified member of the Bourne universe. She wrote fan fiction inspired by the 2012 movie “The Bourne Legacy,” and her new novel, “The Chemist,” is a kind of love letter to fellow Bourne devotees, complete with a formal dedication to their hero and to the “Bourne Legacy” stalwart Aaron Cross.
Even though I’m a chemist, I’m happy to go along with this kind of thing as long as the science is halfway plausible. If I buy James Bond, I should be able to buy Meyer’s title character Juliana Fortis. Except I couldn’t. Meyer doesn’t so much create a believable scientist as cobble together various scientific terms and vignettes, then graft them, Frankenstein-style, onto a standard Meyer ingénue (Bella of the “Twilight” series or Melanie of “The Host”) mixed with a Bourne-land baddie. The result is Juliana, a patchwork character in a monster of a book at 518 pages.
Juliana attended Columbia University’s medical school and had a very busy four years. In between medical studies, she did significant research in every field that enables her to fully develop drugs, explosives, and biological and chemical weapons. Unlike many newly-minted M.D.s, Juliana eschewed a residency in favor of on-the-job training at a secret government lab, for which the powers-that-be recruited her in medical school. At the lab, she puts her immense education to use — Spoiler Alert! — to torture potential terrorists.
That a doctor would engage in medical torture is, sadly, believable. But it hardly makes Juliana a sympathetic character. Instead, she comes across as villain-playing-hero — the type of scientist Jason Bourne or Aaron Cross would have loathed (and probably killed). In any event, she escapes an assassin and begins life on the lam.
Not one to slack off, Juliana spends part of her fugitive time working as a Mafia doctor and gets a much-needed surgical residency. Besides stitching up her own wounds from repeated attempts on her life, she has to perform highly complicated surgery to save her new boyfriend — a boyfriend, whom by the way, she kidnapped and tortured about 440 pages earlier. Yes, it is as creepy as it sounds. But against all odds, the ingénue gets her vampire. Oops, sorry, wrong Meyer book.
Keeping herself alive is where Juliana spends most of her chemistry time during her fugitive years. She cooks up performance-enhancing drugs, typically used in the Bourne universe to keep spy assassins in working order. These drugs are called “chems” in the Bourne books and movies; They boost intelligence, strength, or the ability to keep running if you’ve been shot, stabbed, or beaten. To make them, she draws on a suite of equipment — rotary evaporator, condensers, and other labware — that she totes around in a duffle bag while on the run from various government agencies. She can also synthesize a new, undetectable poison in just three hours in a bathroom, using a nonspecific opioid she bought on the street, other unnamed ingredients, and probably duct tape. Well, you’d need duct tape too if you were storing all your gear in duffle bags.
If this doesn’t sound like the way a chemist would pack lab equipment, here’s another spoiler: Juliana isn’t a chemist at all. “The Chemist” is just a nickname her secret-lab colleagues gave her — one she doesn’t even care for, given that she also uses a “DNA sequencer and polymerase chain reactor,” plus monoclonal antibodies. However, as she allows, “the Molecular Biologist was probably too big a mouthful.” We never do find out what Juliana uses the DNA sequencer and polymerase chain reactor for, nor what monoclonal antibodies have to do with anything.
Meyer does throw in some classic spy chemistry in the form of hydrogen cyanide gas, which Juliana uses for protection in her crash pads and on her person. She supposedly makes it using peach pits and some unnamed acid, but that wouldn’t get her the product she desires. It could be done in the right acidic environment, with the right plant or microbial enzymes to decompose the compound called amygdalin found in peach pits. (The right conditions can be found in our stomachs, which is why one should not gorge on peach pits.) For all the molecular biology Meyer sprinkles about “The Chemist,” she completely — and a bit oddly — skipped an opportunity to have her scientist-of-all-science put it to use.
Artistic license can lead to creative science in popular fiction, but as Melody M. Bomgardner quipped in an article for Chemical & Engineering News, Meyer’s science is “Mad Libs style.” Imagine a game of Mad Libs that goes on for more than 500 pages, with fill-in-the-blank entries like [molecular biology term] … [medical jargon] … [improbable chemical procedure]. That’s what reading this novel is like. If it sounds entertaining, pick up “The Chemist.” This chemist just found it exhausting.
Raychelle Burks, a member of Undark’s advisory board, is an assistant professor of chemistry at St. Edward’s University and a science communicator who writes about chemistry in pop culture.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Juliana Fortis, the title character of “The Chemist,” “carries around” a DNA sequencer, a polymerase chain reactor, and monoclonal antibodies. In the novel, she uses them but does not carry them with her.