Publication Date: April 5, 2022
A must-read debut novel! Meet Elizabeth Zott: a one-of-a-kind scientist in 1960s California whose career takes a detour when she becomes the star of a beloved TV cooking show.
“It’s the world versus Elizabeth Zott, an extraordinary woman determined to live on her own terms, and I had no trouble choosing a side…. A page-turning and highly satisfying tale: zippy, zesty, and Zotty.” —Maggie Shipstead, best-selling author of Great Circle
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.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is my favorite book so far this year and, I dare say, one of my top 20 reads of all time. It has everything I could ever ask for in a book and more. It’s timely, poignant, witty, and empowering. I could easily read it repeatedly and find small nuances that make it even more special.
The story’s first half puts the book in time and place, explaining a point in our recent history that most of us were not around to remember. It paints a 1950’s world that is incredibly misogynistic, where women were made to feel like inferiors in every way. But along comes Elizabeth Zott, who does not buy into the social norms. Her journey to becoming a chemist is so poignant and horrifying it moved me in ways I can’t even begin to explain. Reading the first half, I couldn’t believe that people called this story funny because I was not laughing. I was angry for Elizabeth and had a low opinion of every male in the story except for Calvin. Calvin was the one man who respected and encouraged Elizabeth at every turn. Even when he didn’t understand things like her reluctance to marry, he accepted her and her thoughts and feelings unconditionally, being happy just to be with her. Their story brought me to tears more than once.
Then along comes the second half of the book, where the wit and wisdom had me chuckling my way through to the end. Happenstance leads Elizabeth and her daughter, Mad, on a journey that still empowers me when I reflect on it. Elizabeth became a tv personality, a chef who used cooking to teach chemistry to women everywhere. And, by sticking to what she believed in – by not giving in to the powers that be that wanted her to bend to the social norms – she not only taught women who had been told they were not intelligent enough to understand such complex topics as science, but she empowered them to follow their dreams, and they did! Her power as a tv personality brought about changes that made me smile, and the way she did it tickled my funny bone. The ending was not that big of a surprise, but I loved it, nonetheless. It is the perfect ending to an imperfect tale full of hardship, degradation, and a voice that needs to be heard.
Technically, the story keeps a reasonably fast pace and immerses the reader from the very first page. It stays focused most of the time, only straying when a back story needs to be told, as is narrated from a third-person perspective. Elizabeth is my favorite character, followed closely by her dog, Six-Thirty, and daughter Mad. Six-Thirty stole my heart on more than one occasion. He’s the dog everyone would love to have, but nobody does. All of the characters are so well-developed that even if you can’t relate to them, you can feel emotions because of them.
If you are looking for a poignant and witty reflection on what it means to be a woman, Lessons in Chemistry will give you that and more.