"... 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.
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.