Gail Siegel On Kim Chinquee’s Pipette

When a long-time writer of flash fiction pens a novel, what do you get? It might sound like a riddle or light-bulb joke, but thus far, there aren’t samples enough for a pithy punchline. However, if flash guru Kim Chinquee’s debut novel PIPETTE is a bellwether, readers might expect books both elegant and moving.

In PIPETTE, professor and triathlete Elle is mired in the second act of a troubled relationship with Henry, whose politics and ambition are counter to her own. Yes, they share interests: their beloved dogs, a zest for cycling, competitive running and mutual friends. But in a cascade of short, episodic sections, it is clear that Elle sacrifices more for their romance than Henry. She’s sold a house she’d built, moved far from campus, suppressed her politics, and faced her fear of downhill skiing to please him.

Like the steady drip-drip of a leaky faucet, Chinquee’s flash-like chapters eventually accumulate into a torrent of sorrows that force her to act. No, Elle cannot sacrifice her values to a Trump-lover; no, she will not endure Henry’s threats of violence. The trick is leaving, and it isn’t Elle’s first rodeo. As noted in Getting Out of It, one of the book’s shortest chapters, Elle appeases Henry’s ego while arranging new housing, finding Henry’s keys, and ignoring his verbal assaults.

Meanwhile, the beauty of PIPETTE’s structure breaks the tension of witnessing a toxic, doomed romance. Each of the novel’s mini-chapters can stand alone, allowing Chinquee to drop in anecdotes and flashbacks about her farmhouse childhood, the constellation of cruel and compassionate relatives, her son’s military career, and her own deployment as a medic during the AIDS and Desert Storm era. This structure, punctuating the present with the past, deepens our compassion for Elle. We want her to conquer her alienation and fears—of downhill skiing, of lightning, of open water swimming. And we cheer for her efforts to combat Covid-19 as a part-time health care worker, dusting off old tech skills to pipette samples and run tests.

In parallel, the novel’s through-line of sports, from skiing and biking to running and swimming, moves the story along like the stages of a marathon. But rather than share spoilers about if and when Elle crosses her finish line, there is much else to highlight in PIPETTE.

Chinquee’s descriptions never fail to delight: Figure skiers look like cursive. A saucepan is a kaleidoscope of blueberries bleeding into oatmeal. The lake is an animal. Her understated wisdom, disguised by simplicity, always rings true: “If we question things, there’s a reason for the question.” 

And her briefest chapters punch a wallop, as in Jumps and Tricks, where, “Don flirts with the waitress a little. When he asks if that’s OK, I ask him what he thinks.” For these pleasures alone, PIPETTE is great reading. Soon enough, the reader will find the tiniest of stories merging into an immersive tale.