Book Review | Lessons in Chemistry

“Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

This line immediately grabbed my attention as I picked up Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry. I had recently joined a new book club, a goal I’ve had for some time now, so I was looking forward to reading this book and meeting some new bookworms in my area.

A little about Lessons in Chemistry (from the book jacket): Chemist 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.

Like science, though, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother but also 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 isn’t teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

My review

I read somewhere that it took Garmus 10 years to write this book, and it shows. Her writing is deliberate, quirky, and smart. I loved the matter-of-fact narration and her storytelling. I was instantly hooked and knew I was going to enjoy this book about feminism and motherhood. As a new mom, I was all about it!

Elizabeth Zott is such an interesting and fabulous character. She is brilliant, sharp-tongued, and clearly advanced when it comes to cultural norms. It was frustrating reading this book sometimes. The writer, who sprinkles in free indirect discourse throughout her prose, demonstrates how men perceived Zott. Even more frustrating was the women who did not support her. Some parts were hard to read, especially since we still live in a world where women do not have autonomy over their bodies and their livelihood. There are some other trigger warnings, which I list at the bottom of the post.

One of the novel’s biggest strengths was its side characters. While I was not a Calvin fan, I did enjoy Mad (their daughter), Harriet (the neighbor/nanny/babysitter/stand-in grandmother), and Six-Thirty, the sweet and smart dog. They really made the book special.

OK. Some dislikes.

The book opens with promise talking about Zott on her television show and its success, but then it takes a turn and brings readers through her entire backstory. This includes her education, early career, meeting Calvin, losing Calvin, and getting the television gig. While I appreciate a good backstory and its importance to setting up the plot and character development, it was very convoluted. There wasn’t enough balance and could have benefitted from some cuts. Rowing is cool, I guess? But I wanted more of the present and the television show, which was the real draw of the book.

Another dislike. Does she have to be hot? Like. Can’t she just be a regular woman? Not this stunningly hot, brilliant chemist? Just an average looking working mom would have made it a little more realistic.

Overall, it was an enjoyable book that I zoomed through. But what I liked more was meeting this group of ladies!

Some trigger warnings if you want to read … and I would have appreciated an author’s note at the beginning about these (proceed with caution because there are spoilers):

  • rape
  • sexism
  • suicide
  • homophobia
  • cult
  • death of parents
  • death of loved one
  • assault
  • domestic violence
  • incarcerated parent
  • almost death of pet

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