Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

  • Title: Lessons in Chemistry
  • Author: Bonnie Garmus
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Intended audience: adult
  • Format read: ebook
  • Publisher: Doubleday Books
  • Pub date: April 5, 2022
  • Content warnings: sexual assault, sexual harassment, death, grief, death of a loved one, car crash, suicide, mentions of homophobia, references to child sexual abuse, bombs
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

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.

An image of blue flowers on a white background.

One of my friends recently recommended Lessons in Chemistry to me, and I am so glad they did. I hadn’t heard anything about it, but a quick look at the summary immediately told me it was something I was interested in. I am always looking for more books about women in science (preferably in math, but that’s a bit niche so I’ll take what I can get), and I loved the concept of a cooking show infused with chemistry lessons. I devoured it in a mere two days, I simply didn’t want to put it down. But while I thoroughly enjoyed Lessons in Chemistry, I also have a lot of Thoughts about it.

Let’s start with the good. Lessons in Chemistry truly had a great story. Garmus manages to successfully weave a story over nearly a decade that remains coherent, which is not an easy thing to do. There are appropriate twists and turns, some of which actually made me gasp. There was also a charming cast of side characters; including Mad, Elizabeth’s daughter, Harriet, their neighbor, and Wakely, a reverend who Mad meets at the library. And who could forget Six-thirty, their trusty dog who occasionally assists in the narration. I usually have difficulty with animals being involved in narration, but the book was just quirky enough and Six-thirty was intelligent enough that it made sense. And maybe I am starved for it, but it really is nice to read a book with a woman in STEM.

Despite a relatively solid plot and cast of characters, what really elevated the book was Garmus’s deft prose. Alternating between witty and gut-wrenching, the prose is a sharp as one of Elizabeth’s knives. I frequently found myself laughing aloud at the wry humor imbued in the pages, as well as deeply feeling Elizabeth’s pain along with her.

It’s a lot easier to have faith in something you can’t see, can’t touch, can’t explain, and can’t change, rather than to have faith in something you actually can…one’s self, I mean.

While Lessons in Chemistry is definitely a great story, you can also tell it was trying to be more than that. It was very much attempting to be social commentary on women’s experiences and a piece with literary merit. Which is fine in and of itself, but I felt Garmus failed to successfully execute this, often undercutting her own messages.

I find the fact that Elizabeth is so clearly, utterly exceptional makes the story less compelling than if she had been a smart woman, but not necessarily a genius. Although Elizabeth is by no means the only woman in this story with ambition, she is the only one exceptional enough to pursue her ambition without any assistance. Other side characters in the story will eventually learn to fight for what they want, but usually only after being inspired by Elizabeth. Despite the fact that a large part of the book was the idea that your average woman deserves to be taken seriously, Lessons in Chemistry venerates the exceptional, not the average, woman.

Moreover, too frequently women’s interactions traced back to men. They were either bonding over their shared grief for the loss of a man or the misogyny they had faced. I think the book gave Calvin too much time in general, but specifically because it gave him more credit than he deserved. He certainly respects Elizabeth’s ability to do chemistry, but frequently fails to respect her wishes in other ways. Calvin is also portrayed as this incredibly exceptional man in terms of his genius and his respect for women. The way he is praised by both Elizabeth and the novel conveys that only truly exceptional men have the capacity to respect women, while also telling us we need to praise men for doing the bare minimum.

Finally, with both Elizabeth and Calvin, Garmus plays too heavily into the “geniuses don’t understand how to properly interact with normal people” trope. I think Elizabeth’s refusal to play to the system is incredibly admirable and the clashes which occur as a result are an important part of the novel. However, most of the time she wasn’t making the choice to deviate from social norms, she literally did not grasp that society was attempting to make a sexist demand of her. She is too logical to grasp why society is so misogynistic, and in turn it means that she isn’t really resisting society’s expectations, because she isn’t making any cognizant choice. Maybe this seems like a silly detail, but the fact that Elizabeth wasn’t actively choosing to resist social norms detracts from the power of the action.

Whenever you start doubting yourself…whenever you feel afraid, just remember. Courage is the root of change—and change is what we’re chemically designed to do.

Given the intense criticism, I really do hope this review doesn’t scare anyone away. I genuinely enjoyed Lessons in Chemistry. I gave it four stars! I think it is worth the read if it is something you are interested in. But I also think these are all valid critiques, and changes could have made the novel better. More importantly, I desperately needed to talk about all my complicated feelings about this book.

Before I go, I do want to emphasize that sexual assault is quite an important trigger warning for this book, so please take care while reading.

An image of blue flowers on a white background.

Thank you so much for reading! Have you read a book that didn’t fit your expectations? What’s a book you had complicated feelings about? Let me know in the comments below!

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