Lessons in Chemistry (2022) by Bonnie Garmus is on NPR’s Best Books List, but I’d seen the title all over the place. The pink cover with the woman on the front made it look like a romance novel, but the NPR description sounded a lot more fraught than what you would expect. Initially, it didn’t sound very appealing, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to read it. I did become a little more interested when it was recently recommended by a book club friend. But that’s all before I started reading: I loved it. Lessons in Chemistry was my favorite of the year (so far), but also at least my favorite fiction book of last year as well.
Elizabeth Zott is a chemistry nerd, and she has the brains to make some serious advancements in her field. The problem is that she is a woman trying to work in the sciences in the early 1960’s. The book begins with Elizabeth Zott, a single mother, supporting her young daughter, Madeline, by hosting a popular television cooking show. Elizabeth is not fulfilled and not happy, and she says the reason why is Calvin Evans.
With this, the book flashes back in time ten years to the Hasting Research Institute. Elizabeth Zott is working as a research chemist with a difficult, asshole of a boss when she meets Calvin Evans–the undisputed star of the research institute. After a rocky start, the two click. They are both loners, dedicated to their research. And even though Evans has not completely escaped the patriarchy’s influence, he admires Elizabeth and treats her as an equal. The two make a great couple.
But then things go wrong and Elizabeth finds herself alone, unwed, jobless, and an unexpected mother. She struggles through, eventually creating a life for herself and something of a support network with some close friends.
I’m not interested in going into the details of the plot. I went into this book not knowing at all what to expect, and I think that made it better. But there are some very funny lines, some romance, some heartbreak, and even a little mystery. In addition, it has the feel of a fairy tale–with a heroine who can handle almost anything, an almost unbelievably precocious child, and an unbelievably smart dog who fits perfectly into the story. It feels very fun and light–until something horrible happens that reminds you that life can suck and our characters are struggling. I was very impressed with the writing. Even though the characters often felt bigger than real life, I felt their emotions almost viscerally. In addition, the unfairness of Elizabeth’s struggles at the Hastings Institute were so frustrating!
This book made me feel, and I found it inspiring. I loved this book, and I highly recommend it.
“Imagine if all men took women seriously. Education would change. The workforce would revolutionize. Marriage counselors would go out of business.” (331)
“Worst of all, he was a rower.” (8)
“Almost no one bought this story. Dr. Meyers had a reputation. But he was also important, and UCLA had no intention of losing someone of his stature.” (20)
“No surprise. Idiots make it into every company. They tend to interview well.” (111)
“In the 1950’s, abortion was out of the question. Coincidentally, so was having a baby out of wedlock.” (130)
“E.Z. machine-stitched above the breast pocket in a slutty-looking cursive.” (189) [This quote is completely out of context, but it made me laugh that the font is being slut-shamed.]
You can find all my reviews on my blog.