This is my first ever audiobook experience. I decided to take the plunge because Spotify Premium is now offering 15 hours of listening per month as part of a membership. I am also currently reading a physical book that will probably take me close to a month (hint: Russian names) so I decided to shift some of my copious podcast listening time to audiobooks.
So why was Lessons in Chemistry my first “read” in audio format? Well, I’ve always been a little resistant to listening to books because I know how frequently I zone out during podcasts. It’s why I tend to stick to comedy or interview podcasts as opposed to long-form narratives. Since I’ve already seen the Apple TV+ adaptation, I wasn’t too terribly concerned about missing out on plot details.
One final reason to listen to the audiobook version of Lessons in Chemistry is that it meant I didn’t have to been seen carrying that awful American cover. (I’ve used the UK edition cover above.)
On to the book itself. Elizabeth Zott is a scientist at heart, who due to the unrepentant sexism of the 1950s in general and the scientific community in particular, is thwarted from fully achieving her career goals. Despite her brilliance, Elizabeth is routinely condescended to by chemists with far less genius and creativity. They disparage her work to her face while stealing it behind her back. All except Calvin Evans. Widely tapped as a future Nobelist, Calvin is the only man smart enough to recognize Elizabeth’s ability and wise enough not to feel threatened by it. Naturally, they fall in love.
Years later, after tragedy has intervened, Elizabeth finds herself a single mother and no longer a scientist. Instead, in the kind of career move only possible in light fiction, she is the host of a shockingly popular TV cooking show. Despite being thoroughly unsuited for the role, Elizabeth finds success by being uncompromisingly herself.
Who is Elizabeth Zott? On the one hand, she is an inherently compelling character. Just by virtue of being a woman bucking a sexist system, she naturally garners the reader’s sympathy. Her forthrightness and confidence make her easy to root for, while her inability to read social cues and refusal to compromise allow for humorous complications and dramatic tension. However, Bonnie Garmus falls into a common trap when writing about the past. She instills her 1950s-based character with all of the opinions and political stances of your average 2020s progressive woman. She compounds the error by having the villainous characters spew the most obvious sexist dialogue, stuff that it’s hard to imagine people just outright saying, even that many years ago. It’s not that there weren’t women back then who were way ahead of their time, it’s just that it makes for a slightly boring dynamic, where Elizabeth is just completely right every single time. (The TV show attempted to correct this by diversifying the cast, allowing for Elizabeth to be called out for her white-feminism. It’s a move that I gained a new appreciation for after listening to the book.)
There are some genuine upswells of emotion as Elizabeth perseveres and even thrives despite all the obstacles opposing her, but they are buried in a sea of Dickensian coincidences that are hastily introduced and poorly handled. The overall effect is of an author who has created a great character but has little idea what to do with them.
I’ll close with some remarks on the audiobook format, for anyone who may be considering it. The narrator is Miranda Raison. She has a pleasant speaking voice and handles the narrative well, but her attempt to differentiate the dialogue by putting on accents is hammy and distracting. Perhaps it’s my lack of experience with the format, but it made me feel like I was being treated like a child asking my parent to “do the voices.”