Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Title: Lessons in Chemistry
Author: Bonnie Garmus
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: March 31, 2022
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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.

**Save

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.Save

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Book Review: Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Title: Love on the Brain
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Love Hypothesis comes a new STEMinist rom-com in which a scientist is forced to work on a project with her nemesis—with explosive results.

Bee Königswasser lives by a simple code: What would Marie Curie do? If NASA offered her the lead on a neuroengineering project – a literal dream come true – Marie would accept without hesitation. Duh. But the mother of modern physics never had to co-lead with Levi Ward.

Sure, Levi is attractive in a tall, dark, and piercing-eyes kind of way. But Levi made his feelings toward Bee very clear in grad school – archenemies work best employed in their own galaxies far, far away.

But when her equipment starts to go missing and the staff ignore her, Bee could swear she sees Levi softening into an ally, backing her plays, seconding her ideas… devouring her with those eyes. The possibilities have all her neurons firing.

But when it comes time to actually make a move and put her heart on the line, there’s only one question that matters: What will Bee Königswasser do?

Bee is a brilliant neuroscientist and Marie Curie’s #1 fangirl… but she’s also stuck in a job at NIH under a non-supportive boss and limited prospects, until she’s offered a spot co-leading an exciting project at NASA. This could be her big breakthrough! But Bee’s excitement dims when she learns that she’ll be partnering with Levi Ward, an engineer who was her nemesis back in grad school — the man despised her!

Still, it’s too good an opportunity to let slip by, so Bee heads off to Houston, determined to establish a good professional collaboration with her sworn enemy. Her first attempts at collegiality fail — he doesn’t even answer her emails, and he reprimands her about dress code (he apparently doesn’t care for her purple hair and septum piercing) on her very first day.

As they work together, Bee starts to notice Levi being less… awful, and even coming to her rescue when she (weirdly) gets trapped in a cemetery overnight. Their working relationship is blossoming, and their project is going amazingly well, but how can she allow herself to think that Levi is warming to her when she knows how deeply he hated her?

Love on the Brain, Ali Hazelwood’s follow-up to her debut novel, The Love Hypothesis, once again succeeds in combining romance with a portrait of women in science. I love that she shows brilliant women actually doing their jobs, using their education and intelligence to make a difference in their fields — and also battling the deeply embedded sexism and patriarchal structures that seem to doom women to unnecessary struggle just to get a seat at the table.

Bee’s humor shines through, even while describing the absolutely infuriating experience of being second-guessed or undervalued simply because she’s the woman in the room:

With Levi present, his team tends to agree to my suggestions more quickly — a phenomenon known as Sausage Referencing… In Cockcluster or WurstFest situations, having a man vouch for you will help you be taken seriously — the better-regarded the man, the higher his Sausage Referencing power.

Or another example:

I marvel that I was given credit for my idea. Goes to show how low the bar is for cis dudes in STEM, doesn’t it? Thank you, Oh Penised Overlords, for the recognition I deserve.

Bee is a fascinating character, obviously brilliant (I know I keep saying that, but it’s true!), but also burdened by a childhood in which she and her twin sister, after being orphaned, were shuttled from relative to relative and place to place, never establishing roots or a stable home. Bee has learned not to expect anything to last, especially after her scumbag ex-fiance cheated on her shortly before her wedding. So when she and Levi have the expected romantic breakthrough, she doesn’t allow herself to think of it as anything but colleagues-with-benefits — love just doesn’t last, so why set herself up for failure?

The book is very engaging and a quick, entertaining read. The plot balances the romantic elements with the challenges Bee faces at work, as someone tries to sabotage both her project and her professional reputation. Through Bee, we also get insight into other women’s struggles in STEM, both via her secret Twitter account (@WhatWouldMarieDo) and through her involvement in a new movement to promote fairness in grad school admissions by eliminating the GRE as a measure of worthiness. It’s not that we don’t know that women face unfair barriers, but seeing these brought to life through Bee’s experiences is really eye-opening in a dramatic way.

I do have a few quibbles, naturally. Bee is quirky and unusual, to say the least, but some of her affects, like her breaking down in sobs whenever she sees roadkill, feel a little over the top. Her EQ is also rather low for such a smart woman — I mean, she misses so many blatant cues about Levi’s true feelings that her obliviousness just seems unrealistic.

Not that this point takes away from my enjoyment, but Love on the Brain is the 3rd book I’ve read this summer where an anonymous correspondence turns out to be between the two main characters — it’s just not a big reveal if it’s completely expected! I think the secret-penpal trope may need to be retired…

Overall, I really enjoyed Love on the Brain — in fact, for some unknown reason, I went into it not expecting to really be in the mood, but then was happily proven wrong! This book was just what I needed, funny but with depth, with amazing smart women in the spotlight, and a writing style that keeps the story zipping along. The sparkly, funny dialogue (and Bee’s internal asides) make this such an engaging read, and I look forward to reading more by this author!

Book Review: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

Title: The Love Hypothesis
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

EVERYBODY seems to either have read or to be reading this contemporary romance — so I gave in to temptation and joined the crowd! And mostly, it’s a really enjoyable, sweet tale.

But — ugh — let me just say that I do not like the synopsis (above). It just doesn’t convey the charm of the characters or what’s special about the book’s set-up.

So… Olive is a Ph.D. student working her butt off, living off her meager grad stipend, and basically focused solely on her work. A complication arises when it becomes clear that the guy she’d started casually dating is actually much more interested in Olive’s best friend, who seems to return the interest. But Anh would never agree to date him and break the friend code, even if Olive insists she’s just not that into him.

When Olive lies to Anh and says she’ll be out on a date with a new love interest, leaving Anh free to start a romance with Jeremy, things get complicated. Anh sees Olive in the lab building — clearly not on a date. So, as the synopsis says: Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees — who just happens to be Dr. Adam Carlsen, a young powerhouse in the academic field, with a reputation of being an arrogant ass when it comes to his grad students.

Olive is embarrassed and super awkward… but as it turns out, a fake dating scenario would benefit both Olive and Adam. Olive needs Anh to believe that Olive is in a relationship so that she can pursue her own love life guilt-free, and Adam needs Stanford to believe he’s in a relationship so they don’t consider him a flight risk and cut off his grant money. So hey, what’s a little fake-dating between (kind of) colleagues? Olive assumes a weekly coffee date is enough to seal the deal and make it believable.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, as Olive and Adam are constantly thrown together, and (of course) develop an easy rapport, ridiculously cute banter, physical attraction, and, eventually, real and actual feelings.

The Love Hypothesis follows many of the standard story beats of the fake dating trope, but it’s got a lot of unique elements going for it as well. First of all, the science and academia setting is terrific. I love seeing a woman in science, here presented as dedicated to the point of obsession when it comes to her profession and her research. Olive is smart, motivated, and committed, and her struggle to be taken seriously and get the opportunities she deserves is well portrayed and convincing.

Also, the academic setting provides a structure that I haven’t come across much in contemporary romances. The science and lab work and dissertation meetings are all part of the plot. I’ve seen too many romances where we’re informed that the lead character is a respected professional, but we never see her doing any actual work. Here, we follow Olive in and out of meetings and labs and conferences, and get a real feel for the texture of her life as a graduate student (as well as the truly minimal financial resources she has… so yes, it’s a big deal when Adam pays for her pumpkin spice lattes!).

An added unique element is Olive’s sexuality, which I’d describe (although not labeled as such in the book) as demisexuality. Olive is fairly inexperienced when it comes to sex, mostly having tried it a few times during her college years as something to check off a list, rather than experiencing desire. As she explains, she’s only able to feel sexual attraction when with someone she likes and trusts, and this hasn’t really happened for her previously in her life.

Olive and Adam do have great chemistry, and I enjoyed them together as a couple. Despite Adam’s fearsome reputation in the department, he warms up around Olive, and they’re able to joke and exchange quips together that would probably make his grads’ heads spin.

I’m not typically a big fan of awkward encounters, which seem to be a staple in contemporary romances, and this is an obstacle for me in The Love Hypothesis as well. There’s a lap-sitting scene and a sunscreen scene, to name but a couple, that are kind of clunky and weird — I think they’re meant to be funny, but really, just made me cringe and feel uncomfortable.

Also, some of the lying really bugged me after a while. Olive persists in lying about the fake-dating to Anh even well past the point where she should have just come clean. She also lies to Adam after he overhears a conversation that could reveal her feelings about him, and continues to allow him to misinterpret her feelings even after it’s clear that she should be honest. She’s way too smart for some of the dumb decisions she makes about her emotions and her personal life, and even though she’s portrayed as someone so focused on science that she’s neglected her inner life, I feel like this goes overboard and undersells Olive’s maturity and good sense.

If you’ve read any of my other romance reviews, you may know that I prefer my romances with steaminess on the implied rather than explicit side of things. In The Love Hypothesis, there’s really just one major sex scene, but it is very explicit. Because it was limited to one encounter, I didn’t feel that it took over the book or overwhelmed the reading experience — but still, if you prefer these kind of scenes to be off-screen or fuzzy, just be aware in advance that the sex in The Love Hypothesis is graphic.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Love Hypothesis and found the characters and the set-up charming and off-beat. I love seeing women in STEM professions, especially when the professional aspect is treated seriously and not just as a side note. I’ll definitely want to read more by this author!