Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – an entertaining look at women’s issues in the ‘sixties with an unforgettable protagonist

We’re starting off the new year with an entertaining read that will make you laugh, as well as think, and teach you a bit of chemistry as you go.

There’s something unusual about Elizabeth Zott. She’s a chemist, she’s fiercely intelligent as well beautiful and fearlessly determined. You would think that these would be helpful attributes, that for someone like Elizabeth Zott, the world would be her oyster.

But Bonnie Garmus has set her debut novel in the late 1950s/early 1960s California. This is a period where women found it difficult to break out of the stereotypes that had held them back for centuries – in particular that a woman’s place is in the home; also that academia – particularly lectureships and professorships as well as leading any kind of research – were for men. Elizabeth has escaped her dreadful parents, rescued by reading and study, only to encounter the worst kinds of misogyny at university.

When we first meet Elizabeth, we’re a few years down the track and she’s a TV cook on the afternoon programmes designed for housewives. She’s supposed to follow the script but instead she introduces her audience to chemistry. Because cooking is chemistry after all. Supper at Six is hugely popular, probably because along with the chemistry, viewers also get a good deal of common sense and empowerment.

Sometimes I think that if a man were to spend a day being a woman in America, he wouldn’t make it past noon.

We are also introduced to Elizabeth’s daughter, Madeline, a precocious child who is just as smart and outspoken as her mother. The only other member of the household is Six-thirty, the dog, who not to be left in the shade by his super-smart owners, can understand a huge vocabulary.

The story weaves back to the past to events that bring Elizabeth to the Hastings Research Institute in Commons, California, where she meets her future partner and encounters more of the sexism that prevented her working on a PhD. Calvin Evans’s IQ is off the chart and he’s already been nominated for a Nobel Prize. True chemistry happens between them and Calvin teaches Elizabeth to row. Rowing is the reason Calvin chose a crumby posting at Hastings, that and a grudge.

What I find interesting about rowing is that it’s always done backwards. It’s almost as if the sport itself is trying to teach us not to get ahead of ourselves.

This is a wry comedy of a book, full of quirky characters and the laughs you get from the tense situations Elizabeth creates around herself when just trying to be her own person. Desperation drives her to be a cooking show host, but like the rowing, Elizabeth gets on with it and makes it work. Amid the laughs are the shadows of loss and grief, and a world that is overdue for a darn-good shake up.

Reading Lessons in Chemistry, I couldn’t help humming to myself ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ as Elizabeth adapts when she hits a roadblock and takes no prisoners. Madeline is also entertaining as one of those outspoken kids who ask too many awkward questions. The character of Harriet Sloane, the helpful neighbour happy to babysit and escape her unpleasant husband adds a layer of maternal common sense desperately needed in the household. Six-thirty steals every scene he’s in.

I couldn’t help thinking this novel would work well on the screen and yup, you’ll be able to see it soon if you subscribe to Apple TV+. But as I always say: read the book first. Lessons in Chemistry gets four out of five from me.

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