Review: Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Elizabeth Zott is a great and promising chemist, but the world of men and their egos aren’t ready for her yet. Does that stop her? They wish.

Lessons in Chemistry is a story following our feminist heroine through her days at Hastings Research Institute in the 50s, to being an American day-time TV cooking celebrity in the early 60s. Elizabeth is a force to be reckoned with—an attribute that lands her in hot water and the enemy of her colleagues more than a few times.

Bonnie Garmus creates a fierce and resilient character in Elizabeth. When she is fired from her chemist job for being pregnant, she builds herself a lab in her kitchen de ella. When the job to be a TV cooking host comes up, she incorporates chemistry into her teaching of her. What was once vinegar and salt is now acetic acid and sodium chloride. Does it make for a peculiar shopping list? Yes, but that’s the point.

I found the book unputdownable, and not because it was a thrilling page-turner, but because I was enjoying myself so much. The novel deals with sensitive topics and the sexism Elizabeth battles never really lets up. And yet, there is humour, there is hope, and overall it is an enrapturing book to consume within a day.

Garmus crafts Elizabeth’s response to soft sexism expertly. She captures the essence of sexist comments that aren’t said with malicious intent, but a product of the patriarchal construction of society and all of it’s supposed ‘rights and wrongs’ of behavior based on your sex. Elizabeth takes that on by practicing pure equality. It’s bold for me to be wearing trousers? Then that must mean its bold for you too. Congratulations.

While this book is undeniably feminist and empowering, it’s perhaps most championing feature is it’s realism. Not all men are misogynist tykes, and not all women help to empower other women. The book does an amazing job of showing an array of different people, their positions in society, their privileges and prejudices, but also their fight and desires. And it does so, all whilst maintaining a small-cast feel to the novel with inclusion of large ramifications – which in total results in a good structured story.

Dr. Mason is a refreshing character in his views, although, I don’t think I’m the first or the last to be wary of him and hold a little suspicion against his name throughout the entire book, on the account of the previous men featured and the thought of “he’s just too good to be true” at this point. Apologies, Dr. Mason, my bad.

Whilst historical in its setting, many of the themes that Garmus explores are still prevalent in today’s society. Sexism in the work place, sexism behind film productions, and the mass opportunities missed due to institutionalized societal beliefs that a woman’s place is in the home. On her show Elizabeth is teaching women to cook, yes, but she is also daring them to strive for their dreams, to go and achieve what society has made them believe is impossible for a mere housewife to do.

A dying practice in novel writing and publishing has been the existence of chapter titles. Garmus not only provides such, but uses them as a tool for her story of her. Often harking to a joke that we’ll get once we read the chapter, or acting as the chapter’s punchline. Not all have to serve such a purpose, but it is a nice art to see return and can be used to great comedic or impactful effect.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the dive into this mid-century tale of an uncompromising—yet quite ordinary in the greater scheme of things—woman following her passion. Through a roller-coaster of success we follow along Elizabeth’s journey through the heartache, frustration, and heroic moments to strive to achieve what she most wants. Elizabeth Zott battles stereotypes, male chauvinism, and the hand that life dealt her to not only empower herself but to empower a league of women tuning in to her show which was so much more than cooking.

Lessons in Chemistry is a master class of a well put together novel. It is entertaining, enlightening and you’ll be completely charmed by it.

Lessons in Chemistry is available from Amazon, Book Depository, and other good book retailers, like your local bookstore.

Will you be picking up Lessons in Chemistry? Tell us in the comments below!

*Please check content warnings for this book before reading if you are likely to be triggered by sensitive and emotional themes.*

Synopsis | goodreads

See also

A delight for readers of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Marvelous Mrs. Maiselthis blockbuster debut set in 1960s California features the singular voice of Elizabeth Zott, a scientist whose career takes a detour when she becomes the star of a beloved TV cooking show.

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 mean 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 of her. 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 her 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.

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