Friday, March 17, 2023

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: Reading Room Review









"... a research chemist, Elizabeth Zott was a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who was not average and never would be."


Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus was on so many “best” and “favorite” lists at the end of last year that I finally had to ask myself why.  The word “chemistry” does not excite me, and lessons in it excite me even less.  Of course, I’m being a bit facetious, as I knew it’s a fictional story about a woman chemist in the 1950s/1960s.  But, still, chemistry.  Of course, I do like stories set in the 50s and 60s, having been born in the 50s, and I do like reading about women exceeding the limited expectations of their times.  I am so glad I didn’t let my unfounded disinterest in chemistry deny me a uniquely amazing read.  Those celebrating this book were right about it being a rare find.  The author’s writing style is clean and unburdened by weighty commentary or description, just like the main character Elizabeth Ott’s tone is uncluttered by approaching anything but head-on.  Elizabeth has a scientific tone to her voice when she talks to people, a precision voice that gets to the point.  However, she is a compassionate person, who deeply loves her family, where a softer side of her can safely reside.  Elizabeth’s tone is the book’s tone, telling you like it is, but with soft moments that reach your soul.  Here’s where I tell you that Lessons in Chemistry is author Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel.  To have such command of words and sentence structure speaks to the brilliance of this first-time-out hit.  The pacing is so good that while you might be longing to find some resolution, you are enjoying the journey to getting there with no complaints. 


Elizabeth Zott is magnificent, a character who will become a part of your long-term memory favorites.  She is a scientist in the 1950s and 1960s, and she is more capable of doing a “man’s” job than most men, especially the dolts with whom she works at Hastings Research Institute.  Elizabeth is also pretty, another strike against her in being taken seriously.  Her morally reprehensible boss’ salacious sobriquet for Elizabeth is Luscious Lizzie, ensuring no respect.  But, there is one man, one scientist who respects Elizabeth and falls in love with her, as she falls in love with him.  Calvin Evans is a world-renown scientist on whose coattails Hastings Institute rides.  He has his own private lab there and the other scientists kowtow to him, even though they curse him behind his back.  In an accidental (although are such meetings really accidental in the fates of life) meeting at the theater, where Calvin and Elizabeth literally bump into one another in the oddest of encounters, two souls meet their mate and never look back.


It is now 1961 and Elizabeth is a single parent with a five-year-old child.  Mad, aka Madeline, is Elizabeth’s young daughter, who has already read through most of Dickens.  Mad is now in school, as Elizabeth did recognize that Mad needed to be around other children.  Elizabeth is struggling to make ends meet when she visits the father of Mad’s friend Amanda to talk about a situation concerning the two girls.  Walter Pine is director of afternoon programming at the local television studio, and he has a slot to fill.  After talking to Elizabeth, he offers her the slot for the host of a cooking show.  But this isn’t just any cooking show.  Whatever Walter Pine thinks Supper at Six will be, what it becomes is Elizabeth’s science show of cooking with chemistry, delicious meals using chemical terms and knowledge in demonstrating their preparation.  With Elizabeth Zott at the helm, it becomes even more than a unique cooking show; it becomes a guiding light for women to seek their true place to be determined by themselves.


Please keep in mind that this book is not one that will depress you; it’s actually life-affirming and empowering.  Yes, there are lots of disturbing issues that Elizabeth must deal with in the 1960s as a woman, a mother, and a scientist, but readers won’t get a sense of hopelessness.  The resolve and fortitude that Elizabeth exudes gives the reader a steadfastness to believe in.  The abuse and humiliation this extraordinary woman endures from men because men then (and too many now) think women should do just as they tell them, well, it’s an ugly, cruel view of the inequities forced on women.  There are times when I was reading Lessons in Chemistry that I was furious at the treatment of women then and the resurgence of restricting women’s rights now, but it is a good anger, an anger of recognition that what Elizabeth Zott fought for should not be in vain.  Her love of chemistry and her insistence that life is chemistry and chemistry is life is a constant with her use of chemical terms and explanations in food and how the body responds to it.  Her sharing of this chemistry connection also demonstrates that she believes women are capable of grasping its meaning and importance, and this reflects her belief that women can do whatever they want and do it as well as men.  


In view of the serious subject matter this story deals with, there’s one last, but certainly not least, element readers need to be aware of, which makes the book brilliant.  That element is surprisingly the humor found throughout the story.  Whether it’s in Elizabeth’s unfiltered responses or Six-Thirty’s observations, or the delicious taste of karma, humor does find its footing, bringing an unexpected smile when you most need it.  And, there’s the love found in its various forms—romantic, maternal, friendship, and that of self.  When you reach the end of this story, reader, you may cry a little, but they will be tears generated by a positive force, not negative.  Lessons in Chemistry is an extraordinary read that makes you think beyond its pages and feel emotions that have little to do with chemistry, although Elizabeth Zott could explain those emotions to you with a chemical breakdown of actions and reactions, and we would be spellbound while she did.  With Apple TV coming out with the series "Lessons in Chemistry" in 2023, you'll want to read the book before that happens.  I'm hoping that the series will stay true to the book loved by so many.




Post Review Notes:  I don’t think I’ve ever done a review with an addendum, but I can’t ignore the characters besides Elizabeth Zott who make this story unforgettable.  So, following are some brief comments on some other exceptional characters in Lessons in Chemistry.

The Characters:

Calvin Evans, the love of Elizabeth’s life, is one of those characters who is a primary character to the story but whose physical presence is limited to the past.  There is an underlying story throughout the book that deals with Calvin’s background, a tragic tale that readers will fear might never come to light or resolution.  Calvin is brilliant but also caring and compassionate, and there are some things more important than his scientific work to him.  One of those things he will share with Elizabeth, something that becomes an important part of her well-being, mentally and physically. 


The supporting characters who make a positive difference in Elizabeth’s life are as original and quirky as Elizabeth and the story is.  The author gives just enough backstory to make them whole, nothing superfluous about it.  I truly cared about these characters, too, in conjunction with Elizabeth’s story and as individuals.  Here are those who most affect Elizabeth’s life.

One of the characters you will have heard about from this story, if you’ve heard anything at all about this book, is Six-Thirty.  This is the dog that Elizabeth and Calvin take in and who is one of the narrators of the story.  This dog is more human than most of the humans, and he’s determined to take care of his little family who treat him as an equal.  He is often comic relief to Elizabeth’s very serious life.  I am totally besotted with Six-Thirty.

Mad has a brilliant mind like her mother, but she seems to see the subtleties in people and life better than Elizabeth.  A sweet child who knows she is different from most other children, she operates in life with a self-awareness and, unlike her mother, cares about fitting in with others.  At least Elizabeth does see the need for Mad to be around other people and starts her in school.  

Harriet Sloane, Elizabeth’s across-the-street neighbor is a fifty-five-year-old woman whose children are grown and whose husband is an irredeemable bully.  When Elizabeth first brings Mad home from the hospital and is drowning in her efforts to be a good mother, it is Harriet who steps in and helps Elizabeth restore order to her world and mind.  It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, as Harriet desperately needs to be away from her house and husband.  Harriet’s growth in this story is extraordinary. 

Walter Pine, Elizabeth’s boss at the television station has an important impact on Elizabeth and her little family.  Even though a man, he, too, must deal with an unqualified, clueless boss.  Of course, Elizabeth is responsible for turning his world upside down, too.  Walter is also an odd one out, as he is a single father raising his daughter.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Hide by Kiersten White: Reading Room Review


“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”


The Olly Olly Oxen Free Hide-and-Seek Tournament.  Fourteen competitors, one week, isolated defunct amusement park, hide-and-seek, no exit before game over, no cell phones, and $50,000 if you are the last person not found.  Two people will be eliminated each day.  A company going by the name Ox Extreme Sports is offering the chance of a lifetime for the fourteen people who are desperate to win it.  Mack, who comes from a tragic background and never found her footing, is an expert at hiding.  Her life once depended on it.  This may be her one and only chance to have an existence outside of homeless shelters.  The thirteen other participants all have a dream they're chasing or a pit to climb out of, too. 


The Amazement Amusement Park has been closed since 1974, when a five-year-old girl disappeared and was never found.  Now, over forty years later, the park is a skeleton frame of itself, as rides and buildings are in an advanced condition of decay.  There is still the topiary, lots of hedges, and paths that twist out and into themselves.  The fourteen tournament contestants are locked inside the grounds behind an imposing fence and a massive iron gate.  There is a covered, but open-air, space with cots and showers and restrooms and supplies for them.  This is where they will sleep at night.  During the day they will be out in the park hiding and trying not to get discovered before the sun sets.  Not a bad deal for the big bucks money prize.  They arrive during the night, and their liaison for the Ox Extreme Sports, Linda, sees them settled but leaves well before dawn.  There is an alarm that sounds half an hour before dawn, so the competitors have time to find a hiding place and get set a day of staying out of sight.


Mack's only purpose in this competition is to make it to the end as the only one savvy enough not to get "caught."  She doesn't have any interest in making friends or engaging in conversations.  The first day she sticks to that plan, but the second day she gives in to help Ava, a young Army veteran.  As it turns out, Mack isn't as Teflon-like as she thought, and before the week is out, she will come to care about more than just one of her co-competitors.  The first ones out, Isabella and Logan, are not seen again, not even a good-bye to the group.  No one thinks it too odd, but as the week progresses and screams become a part of the disappearances, Mack and Ava and Brandon know that something is very wrong.  When the players start turning against one another, survival of the fittest becomes a mental and physical double-trouble showdown.   


It's not hard for readers to figure out that there's a supernatural element to what's wrong inside the gates of Amazement Park.  We’re ahead of the characters on this, as readers have an omniscient view, along with several characters’ POVs, that the author provides.  I don’t seek out books with supernatural aspects to them, but since this is a suspense/horror story, it fits just as it should.  The contestants figuring out just what they’re dealing with is only part of the story.  It is the “why” of it that is the crux of the story.  Therein lies the true horror.


Overall, Hide by Kiersten White is a story that kept me engaged and invested in the main character Mack, rooting for this damaged young woman whom life had chewed up and spit out.  The support cast members who were aligned with Mack were also sympathetic characters as readers learn more of their backstory.  Of course, Mack has the mother of all backstories, and one that the other players are aware of early on, but Mack reveals more about her actual tragedy through flashbacks to the day her world fell apart.  The unsavory characters are, of course, necessary and also have interesting stories, but they aren’t as deeply explored as the “good guys.”  With fourteen characters in the game, there are some throw-aways, who we barely know and are unlikely to care about or remember much.  What I liked about the character introductions was that White provided a short bio of a few sentences at the beginning of the story, when the participants for the game were all on the bus that took them to Amazement Park.  The variety of backgrounds is interesting and includes Mack’s homeless status, an Instagram wannabe model, a solar panel salesman, a graffiti artist, a gas station attendant, a YouTuber, and more.  There is a twist about all these unrelated, diverse characters though, and that connection is a stunner.    


The story itself is a good, scary adventure with moments of holding one’s breath, a plot well-paced.  There are some instances where a phrase was maybe repeated too often, but that could have been a deliberate move to emphasize it.  Either way, I wasn’t deterred from being engaged.  Aesthetically, the book is quite enticing.  The book jacket cover is appropriately atmospheric, and the endpapers, front and back, are a colorful map of the amusement park.  Though you can’t always judge a book by its cover, it is the cover and endpages that drew me to it.  I think readers looking for a shorter length story (240 pages) of suspense and horror, with a mystery of the “why,” can be assured that Hide will provide that.  It’s hard to resist a scary story set in an abandoned amusement park with a dark, secret history.