Book Review

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Your ability to change everything – including yourself – starts here

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.

But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute take 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.

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.

Lessons in Chemistry is the debut novel from Bonnie Garmus, and what a debut it is.  I thoroughly enjoyed this feminist tale that– while set in the 1960s – still resonates with the present-day reader. 

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist, although her colleagues – all male – still expect her to make coffee, despite her being significantly more capable than them.  All they see is a woman who is too much – too proud, too clever, too opinionated.  Seen as having ideas above her station, they think that she is playing at science until she finds a man, settles down, and has a few babies – something that would restore order in their parochial little worlds.  Not this women.  With no interest in marriage or children, Elizabeth is determined to stick it out and to continue with her research and hopes that, one day, she might be accepted into their scientific community. 

They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being

I’m sure you’ve gathered, but Elizabeth is a fantastic character, and I was in her corner from the very beginning.  Bold, determined, and intelligent, she is alone in the world, having decided to pursue a career in science when the expectation for women was to settle down and manage the home and the children.  Men – whether they care to admit it or not – are intimidated by this woman who refuses to play a subservient role.  And then she meets Calvin Evans.  Something of a wunderkind in the scientific community, he sees her as she is.  He respects her, and values her input.  Most of all, he treats her as an equal in a society that places little value on women beyond their reproductive capabilities.  It’s a match made in a heaven that neither of them believes in. 

All good things must come to an end, and Elizabeth finds herself rather suddenly and unexpectedly alone, although Calvin leaves her a parting gift to be delivered in nine months or so.  It’s not what she would have chosen, but in true Elizabeth style, she makes the best of it, going through her pregnancy in a typically unique fashion.  Set when it is, this is something for which she is immediately fired from her job, as well as being ostracised for being pregnant, unwed and – through no fault of her own – single.  While many would fear society’s disapproval, to Elizabeth it’s water off a duck’s back and she proceeds with head held high. 

Lessons in Chemistry is a book of two halves.  The first half shows Elizabeth’s relationship with Calvin, while the second half is set a few years later as Elizabeth becomes the host of Supper at Six, appearing on TV paying significantly more than her role at Hastings Research Institute, even accounting for the reduced pay she gets due to being a woman.  Ostensibly a cooking show, Elizabeth – ignoring the direction she’s given – turns it into something more, talking about the science and chemistry behind her cooking and the ingredients that she’s using.  Elizabeth has never been one to hold back on her worldview, however controversial, and quietly starts a revolution as she encourages her predominantly female audience that they can be more than the role that society has forced them into.  What I love about this is that it’s not intentional – Elizabeth doesn’t go on to TV to start a feminist rebellion, it’s just Elizabeth being herself. 

The novel has a wonderful cast of supporting characters.  Some of them you will love, including Elizabeth’s daughter, Mad, and their dog, Six-Thirty.  We do get a few sections told from Six-Thirty’s perspective, and while a little unconventional for a novel like this, it adds to the sense of playfulness that surrounds the novel, and allows the reader to see Elizabeth from another’s point of view – necessary at times when Elizabeth finds herself struggling with being alone and as a single mother.  Then there are the characters that you will loathe, although some (not all) do manage to redeem themselves as the novel progresses.  Each one adds to the narrative, with Elizabeth finding some unexpected allies throughout the novel.

Lessons in Chemistry is a superb novel with a protagonist that you will absolutely adore!  Told with warmth and humour, it highlights some important issues that are still relevant today, despite it being set some 60-odd years ago.  Absolutely fantastic and highly recommended.

Lessons in Chemistry is published by Doubleday and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats.


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