Title: Lessons in Chemistry
Author: Bonnie Garmus
Publication date: March 31, 2022
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
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.
I’ve finally given in to the hype surrounding Lessons in Chemistry. After seeing this book’s weekly appearance on bestseller lists, the Goodreads Choice award buzz, and its selection as Barnes & Noble’s book of the year for 2022, I decided to give it a try — and while I’m glad that I did, I also have a few issues with the book.
I intentionally avoided reading reviews ahead of time, since I wanted to go in without preconceptions. In this case, there’s one plot point that I wish I’d known in advance.
The synopsis describes the book as “laugh-out-loud funny”, and yes, there are funny moments. However (and this is a big HOWEVER):
Content warning: There is a rape scene right near the start of the book.
I repeat, a book described as “laugh-out-loud funny” has a vividly described rape scene at the very beginning, and then never deals with the aftereffects in terms of trauma and survival, only focusing on the very practical impact on Elizabeth’s science career. How many people who picked up this book expecting something upbeat and silly found themselves triggered by this unexpected scene? After finishing the book, I started googling reviews, and see that there are more than a few people who walked away from the book based on that scene. Someone — the publisher? the marketing team? the author? — should have thought about this a little more.
If you can get past that opening, the rest of the book is fast-paced and entertaining, although I still don’t think I laughed out loud. Lessons in Chemistry uses quirky dialogue and interior thoughts to show the struggles of a brilliant woman trying to claim her place as a scientist in an era that wanted her to keep silent and follow the wife-and-mother path.
Elizabeth’s education and career are derailed early on, yet she does not give up and refuses to give in. She has a spectacular romance with fellow chemist Calvin, which we know from the early pages must end somehow, because she’s a single mother at the start of the novel. How we get from the romance to single motherhood is not something I’ll disclose here, but I will say that there are lovely moments as well as tragic ones. Through it all, Elizabeth battles the idiotic sexist norms that belittle her abilities, steal her work, deny her resources, and then force her out when she fails to follow misogynistic expectations.
There are plenty of ups and downs, and somehow, Elizabeth finds herself subverting a local TV station’s afternoon cooking show by making it into kitchen chemistry lessons that also encourage women to seek empowerment, enrichment, and standing up for themselves.
All this is admirable, yet somehow I found it all a bit unlikely. Yes, it’s fiction, and I’m all for strong women breaking barriers and refusing to back down — yet could a woman like Elizabeth in 1960 have this kind of impact? The success of her show, and the ripple effect amongst her viewers, seems highly implausible in terms of the actual time period.
There are other elements that clearly place this book outside the lines of a realistic depiction of… well… anything. Sections are told from the point of view of her dog, Six-Thirty, who can recognize hundreds of English words thanks to Elizabeth’s tutelage. I’m sure many readers will be charmed by Six-Thirty’s narratives, but for me, the approach got old pretty quickly.
Then there’s the matter of Elizabeth’s daughter Mad, who is so precocious that she’s reading Dickens at age 5. It’s lovely that Elizabeth has nurtured Mad to be intellectually curious and able to explore anything and everything that interests her, but even with outstanding reading abilities, I find it impossible to believe that a five-year-old could actually comprehend the content of a Dickens novel.
Those are some pretty major quibbles… and yet, I did race through the book, and once I acknowledged and then shelved the things that were bugging me, I found it an enjoyable read. The writing is pretty zingy, with lots of passages that caught my attention:
In the 1950s, abortion was out of the question. Coincidentally, so was having a baby out of wedlock.
“What’s wrong?” Elizabeth begged for the millionth time. “Just TELL me!” But the baby, who’d been crying nonstop for weeks, refused to be specific.
The biggest benefit in being the child of a scientist? Low safety bar. As soon as Mad could walk, Elizabeth encouraged her to touch, taste, toss, bounce, burn, rip, spill, shake, mix, splatter, sniff, and lick nearly everything she encountered.
There are also, though, some weird word usages, such as “she muffled into his shoulder”. I don’t think “muffled” as a verb works that way, sorry.
The book’s ending is satisfying, if improbable. Lots of coincidences come together to create a great outcome for Elizabeth and Mad, while also providing payback to someone who definitely deserves it.
(I was still annoyed that Elizabeth never got to finish her Ph.D., but who knows? Maybe that still lies in her future.)
Lessons in Chemistry was a fast read that held my attention, but the rape scene was a big stumbling block for me. Add to that the many smaller details that struck me as unlikely or oddly portrayed, and I’m left with very mixed feelings. Overall, I’m glad I gave the book a chance, but can’t say that I loved it.