REVIEW: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel–prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with—of all things—her mind. True chemistry results.
But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.
Laugh-out-loud funny, shrewdly observant, and studded with a dazzling cast of supporting characters, Lessons in Chemistry is as original and vibrant as its protagonist.
CW – Misogyny, rape, domestic violence
Dear Ms. Garmus,
As I headed down the backstretch of reading “Lessons in Chemistry,” I kept thinking “Don’t lose me right at the end. It’s been so good up until now. Please, please don’t fuck this up!” When I read the final page, I sighed with relief. YES. It stayed excellent, and darkly humorous, and it gets my recommendation for readers to go read this book.
Wow, I almost don’t know where to start. I guess I should first mention that I’m sure a lot of readers will hate this book. It has omniscient voice – thus allowing us to know Six-Thirty’s thoughts among others, a non-linear timeline, it has a strong female character (YAY) who endures terrible misogyny up to and including forced penetration on page (only once as Elizabeth always carries her secret weapon and used it), domestic violence to another female character, loss of a loved one, and the sad history of another young woman done wrong. Plus there are the thwarted dreams and goals of women of the 1950s and 1960s. There are some heartbreaking things that happen in this book. Some people might also view the positive things that happen as wish fulfillment. To that I say – I loved it. Young women of today – this is what your mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers had to fight against. This is what they triumphed over to give me and you our chances.
“Lessons in Chemistry” is more of a women’s fiction book but it does have a strong romance in it. As the book opens, we see Elizabeth Zott carefully preparing her daughter’s lunch and writing inspirational notes to put in Madeline, aka “Mad’s,” lunchbox. Elizabeth doesn’t include sappy stuff like “Be Good,” or “Hang in There.” Oh, no. This is the kind of thing that goes in – “Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win.” Madeline listens to her mother but she also tries to fit in at school because she’s seen what her mother – who has never fit in – has to deal with.
Brilliant Elizabeth first meets the love of her life when she (a lowly, underpaid chemist at the only place that would hire her) arrives at the enormous and well stocked lab of the famous Calvin Evans (who is on the cover of chemistry magazines) and steals a box of his beakers. Another not-so-meet-cute later and he’s in love (with her brains as well as her body) but can’t get her to look at him twice. Until she also begins to fall for him although she won’t marry him because if she does, all her research would be thought to be his and all her possible discoveries would be presumed to be his. She would lose her identity and become merely Mrs. Calvin Evans. To every argument of his, she has a zippy rejoinder (and continues to zap men’s silly statements for the rest of the book). She’ll live in sin with him and be deliriously happy doing so (gasp! in the early 1950s!) but she is her own person and will not be subsumed.
All too soon though, she is on her own, facing being a single mother with no support structure. How she stands up, maintains her poise, and meets every battle head on while inspiring first a child and then a city, and then a nation of women who are usually dismissed as just housewives made me almost cry with delight. No, it isn’t an easy row to hoe. Yes, Elizabeth faces constant belittlement from her male peers, demands to wear tight dresses on camera before mixing a cocktail at the end of her show, as well as threats for speaking her truth and never backing down. But Elizabeth is a force of nature and will not hide who she is. She is a boxer who just won’t stay down. At times while I was reading, Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” played on a repeat loop in my mind.
Elizabeth isn’t the only fantastic character. There is Mad, her daughter who has been raised to ask questions, demand the truth, and who learns resilience from her mother. Okay so Mad might be a little bit precocious but given the brilliance of her parents and her mother’s self confidence and determination, I was on board. Harriet, the tough and practical neighbor across the street, finds her own strength and willingness to voice her thoughts on more than children. Walter Pine, the producer of Elizabeth’s cooking – sorry, chemistry – show discovers a backbone and how to be a better person, the staff and crew of “Supper at Six” have far better working lives after Elizabeth manages (oh, the scene was brilliant) to send off the asshat producer who misjudged her, a conflicted minister helps right a wrong, and a family tree is finally filled out. And there’s a dog who failed in one duty but found his family at Six-Thirty one evening whose thoughts we are privy to. Don’t mock this. Six-Thirty has some important things to think about and flawless judgement of character.
The plotting of the novel is precise and careful in ways that don’t have events or statements highlighted in a “This Is An Important Moment/Clue!” way. The reader must trust that it is all important and will eventually make sense as it all beautifully comes together. Is the ending and justice meted out almost too good to be true or are things perhaps a little too convenient for real life? Yeah, I’ll admit that perhaps a few are but it’s not an easy journey and it’s all so good I didn’t care. The story swept me along and despite the heartache and loss, I ended it in a happy place. It’s a bit like a fairy tale but not a Disneyfied one. The characters have to endure, at times, but come through stronger, better, forged through fire. Elizabeth ends, battle tested but still standing, having held out for what she, and all women, deserve – an equal chance and respect for their accomplishments. A
Wow. Great review. Sounds like a fabulous book, worth reading through its heartache and loss, two emotions I avoid like the plague.
@LML: If you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it despite those emotions. I knew I had to include the “Warnings” paragraph because I don’t want anyone to be blindsided by some of the things that happen in the book.
This sounds excellent, Jayne, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’m off to see if my library has it.
@Kareni: I hope they do and if so, that they have multiple copies. The six that my library have were snapped up quickly and the wait list has begun.
This sounds amazing. Six week hold at the library of mine where it’s available earliest (California residents, I encourage you to investigate libraries in other cities—some will provide you with a card for digital materials if you are a California resident). I put it hold of course.
@Jayne: I started this yesterday and was one-more-chaptering until I finished the book at midnight. I very much enjoyed it (well, excerpt for the parts that made me sad). I received my PhD in Chemistry in the latter eighties, and the book reminded me of how grateful I need to be for women of earlier decades who fought battles that I did not.
@Kareni: Yay! I’m glad you liked it. So I have to ask – how accurate was the chemistry in the book?
@Jayne: Bearing in mind that I’ve done nothing with Chemistry for decades, it looked good to me. I seem to recall from the author note that she had a Chemist or two read it for accuracy.
Before I read this, I saw one chapter was called “Stillborn” and I am wondering if this is about stillbirth because I lost a daughter to stillbirth and don’t want to be blindsided by that.
@Sadie’s Mom: I’m sorry for your loss. There is no actual stillbirth in the story. A young woman, who gave birth in a pre-WWII “home for promiscuous girls,” was told that her baby was stillborn. The child wasn’t stillborn but the mother didn’t discover the truth until years later after the child had been put up for adoption.
I am a 76 year old retired OB/GYN. I am 46XY. I have maintained an interest in genetics. Because I purchased Code Breaker and Lifelines, Apple Books suggested this book for me. I read it in two sessions. I alternately laughed out loud, was pissed and had to stop and connect relationships. When I began UW Med School in Seattle, in 1968 there were 85 of us in the FreshMAN class. 82 men and 3 women. I probably went into Medicine and OB/GYN because of an inspiring highschool teacher who gathered a few of us to learn about DNA and the wonderful Nobel work of Watson and Crick. I have since learned that a female X-ray MD provided vital structural information for Watson and Crick to publish their ground breaking work. They became world famous…..she a footnote. Things have certainly changed from the 50s, but misogyny is alive and well. We owe our mothers, sisters. and daughters a greater effort.
@Kurt Weis: Amen. I grew up in a family that expected its women to not only go to college but to graduate and with something besides an Mrs. degree. My mother and both of her sisters did (1950s) and I along with all of my female cousins did.