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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

By May 4, 2023August 12th, 2023No Comments

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

I’ve heard it said that Gal Gadot’s 2017 Wonder Woman is an amazing role model for women. I disagree. To me, although she competes in a man’s world, and on physical strength which represents such a male-dominated arena, she still conforms to the male standard of what a woman should look like. And besides – she’s a fantasy character.

On the other hand, meet Elizabeth Zott.

Elizabeth is tall and angular with hair ‘the colour of burnt buttered toast’ piled on top of her head and held in place by a pencil. When she isn’t wearing baggy trousers, she wears shapeless dresses that button all the way from the neck to the hemline, and sensible shoes. But when Elizabeth Zott walks into a room she commands attention; she is a striking woman who is confident of who she is.

And what Elizabeth Zott is, is a chemist, and a brilliant one at that.

Unfortunately, that level of intelligence in a woman simply cannot be acknowledged or tolerated in sexist 1950s California.

Synopsis of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

It’s the mid-1950s in Southern California and Elizabeth Zott is the only woman in a team of research chemists at Hastings Research Institute. Two years earlier she had been forced to quit her Masters course just ten days before graduation, for fending off a violent sexual attack by the head of her research team.

Nothing had changed in the ensuing two years, and we find Elizabeth still having to continuously prove herself in a world where only men were considered capable of going to work and doing important things. Women, on the other hand, were deemed less capable, less intelligent, and less inventive. They should stay at home and raise children. But Elizabeth Zott didn’t want children, nor did she want to stay at home and be a housewife. What Elizabeth wanted was to be allowed to continue her work, and to be recognized for her achievements.

When she walks into the private laboratory of Calvin Evans, the acclaimed chemist, and helps herself to a large box of beakers, her life shifts. Consumed with desire for each other, she begins a passionate relationship with Evans. Despite his repeated attempts to propose, she refuses to marry him on the grounds that inevitably, her scientific achievements will be submerged beneath his name.

Calvin introduces Elizabeth to the sport of rowing, and their idyllic family of three (including the brilliantly named Six-Thirty, a stray dog who is equally instantly drawn to Elizabeth and follows her home one day at precisely six-thirty) thrives. But when tragedy strikes, both Elizabeth and Six-Thirty become weighed down by a sense of guilt and unbearable loss, and Elizabeth discovers she’s pregnant.

If Bonnie Garmus hadn’t managed to make Lessons in Chemistry such a funny and addictively engaging read, it would be downright depressing. But the narrative is a fitting showcase for Elizabeth’s perpetual flouting of convention, from still rowing, long into her pregnancy, to converting her kitchen into a laboratory and making coffee with the aid of test tubes and a Bunsen burner.

We follow Elizabeth through the trials of pregnancy and the first year of raising a baby as a single-parent mother in 60s California, all the while pursuing her joint passions of chemistry and rowing. When she learns that Madeline, her daughter, was donating her lunch box (filled with nutritional and tasty fuel for learning, presented with one-line thoughts-for-the-day such as: It is not your imagination. Most people are awful) to Amanda Pine, Elizabeth confronts the girl’s father. And so begins her career as a TV cook scientist.

My review

Lessons in Chemistry is a pacy, witty, inventive narrative of one woman’s struggle to be recognized in a world riddled with sexism in every aspect of life. To read it now is to cringe at the blatant sexual discrimination that was rife across the globe and to wonder how on earth we allowed it to exist for so long. But hindsight is an easily acquired skill – foresight is a much rarer gift.

From off-the-wall-parenting to dog wisdom – tutored by Elizabeth, Six-Thirty has a word count of 648 and rising – via a TV cooking show with a distinctly ‘mad professor’ edge to it, we accompany Elizabeth on her one-woman crusade against sex discrimination in the workplace, and in the home.

I laughed out loud, occasionally gasped, raged, and mourned as Elizabeth, Madeline and Six-Thirty allowed me to observe their distinctly quirky and utterly seductive lifestyle, and I was gutted when it ended.

Lessons in Chemistry is to be made into a TV series for Apple. I’m not familiar with Brie Larson (the actor who is playing Elizabeth) but ironically, given my opening statement, she was Captain Marvel in Avengers – Quantum Encounter so I really hope she can do justice to a real role model.


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