"A delight ... made me feel better and stronger for having read it and met such a heroine."
Lessons in Chemistry did not look like a book I’d choose. For a start, the dust jacket image offers half a woman, in a dated high-heeled stance, carrying a colour television showing an American cookery programme. There are also quantities of – to me - annoying quotes. Nigella Lawson, Nina Stebbe, Rachel Joyce . . . However, as the novel was an important birthday gift, I sighed and opened up the pages.
What a pleasure! Almost immediately, I was swept away by the confident voice and dark wit of the writing. This highly enjoyable novel is – give or take some anguish - such an uplifting read that I forgot my crossness about those quotes.
Set in early 60’s America, Lessons in Chemistry is an almost-fairy-tale. The central character is Elizabeth Zott, misfit and heroine, who shines brightly and positively despite all the sharp injustices, pains, losses and her lack of small talk. As a reader, my heart hurt at her troubles and I rejoiced in her every forward step. (An aside: Garmus did not let me down.)
Not long after the start of the book, the admirable Zott becomes the host on Supper at Six, a daily afternoon TV show aimed at “ordinary housewives”. Dressed in her lab coat, with her notebook, pencil and kitchen knives, Zott explains the science behind the cooking process. Alongside, she tells her audience that they are far more than “ordinary”. She treats the women as intelligent people, reminding them of their own hopes and dreams and insisting, during their busy days, of the importance of making a moment just for themselves. Zott’s show, expected to fail, becomes a success.
However, Garmus, introducing the back story, makes it clear that this is not success to the highly-intelligent Zott, whose dreams have already been broken. She does not see herself as a cook. Zott is and always has been a scientist, ready to pursue a particular theory. Once, for a short pivotal time, such a passion was possible but tragedy struck. Now Zott’s scientific career has become what it always had been, one of picking herself up from one bitter disappointment to another.
Garmus makes clear that the academic establishment has, so far, considered Zott – both her brains and her gender - as challenges to the scientific and social norms of the time. She has been sexually abused, accused of being a slut and denied opportunities. Take this small example. Re-applying for a job at the hateful Hastings Research Institute, Elizabeth Zott finds she has been demoted to the role of lab technician. Worse, the smirking boss and “boys” present her with a new lab-coat, embroidered with her initials. E.Z. First time around, being English, I read those letters without American pronounciation. The next time, I understood why she was so upset. You try.
Yet Zott, despite everything, builds a lab in her own home, organises her life and responsibilities as best she can, takes cash in hand from the same staff that dismissed her, and persists. How one longs for her success! But without giving away any spoilers, the plot of Lessons in Chemistry is about much more than nasty bullying or the fame that comes from a tv show.
Yes, there is sadness in the book: the ploys of opportunistic bosses, greedy clerics and the harm of judgemental gossips. Yes, there are moments when my heart cried out for stoical, misunderstood Zott. But yes, there are also moments of delight, humour, affection and quietly happy coincidences. As the story progresses, the lonely Zott attracts a cast of misfit neighbours and self-effacing friends who find themselves standing by and helping her, while others, eventually and unexpectedly, do what is right.
There are three wonderful main characters who are most definitely on Zott’s side: Madeleine, a little girl with a passion for libraries and an imaginative approach to family trees; Six-Thirty, a loving, loyal dog with a vocabulary of over three hundred words and, of course, Calvin Evans, champion rower, scientific genius, grudge-holder and soul mate.
Moreover, between all the conflicts, Bonnie Garmus has laced Lessons in Chemistry with a satisfyingly, mysterious storyline involving mislaid documents, mistaken identities and enigmatic strangers. I read with a growing sense of solutions slowly arriving and wrongs steadily being gloriously righted. All in all, Lessons in Chemistry was a delight and one that made me feel better and stronger for having read it and met such a heroine, which is surely a good thing in a story, especially these days.
When you find this book, do - if possible - glance at the hard cover beneath the dust jacket. No annoying images, no quotes, almost no words. Simply, unadorned, a pattern made from the Periodic Table. Possibly with poisons.
* * * * * * * * * *
Extract: To the horror of the TV producer, Zott has emptied her studio set of a quantity of homely decorations, clearing her "kitchen" surfaces so they are ready for work. Meanwhile, advertisers are insisting - again - that she shows their products to the audience.
“Hello viewers,” Elizabeth said, “See this?” She held the can of soup close to the camera. “It’s a real time saver."
From his producer’s chair, Walter gasped in gratitude. She was using the soup!
“That’s because it’s full of chemicals,” she said, tossing it with a clunk into a nearby garbage can. “Feed enough of it to your loved ones and eventually they’ll die off, saving you tons of time because you won’t have to feed them any more.”
Lessons in Chemistry is published by Penguin.
More reviews by Penny:
The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish
The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty
I bought this on the strength of your review, Penny, and share your enthusiasm. I can see why it's flown up the bestseller charts. I read it in two sittings and enjoyed Elizabeth Zott's 'story' immensely. Highly recommended for anyone who likes books with a strong dose of feminism, characters you'll love and those you'll despise, & laugh-out-loud moments.
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