REVIEW: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

In brief: Elizabeth Zott is a chemist to be reckoned with in the 1960s – but it takes everyone else some time to realise that.

The good: Elizabeth is a fantastic character.

The not-so-good: I read this really quickly as I couldn’t get enough of the story.

Why I chose it: Heard many good things about it. Thanks to Penguin for the copy.

Year: 2022

Pages: 390

Publisher: Doubleday (Penguin)

Setting: California, USA

Rating: 10 out of 10

Lessons in Chemistry has been generating a lot of buzz in the book world and rightly so – it’s a great story with a unique main character that explores sexism in 1960s America. It’s assured, detailed and plotted so well that it’s hard to believe it’s the first novel from Bonnie Garmus. I loved every moment of this story.

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist with a brilliant brain, determined to research more into DNA. But in 1950s/60s America, it’s near impossible to do thanks to the sexism that runs rife throughout the universities. Zott doesn’t have a PhD and she is barely recognised by the men she works alongside – unless they need her help. But Zott is determined to make her point and stand up for herself, even if it gets her a reputation as difficult. When she meets Calvin Evans, lauded scientist and the star of her workplace, it’s the best chemical reaction out there. They are soulmates, at work and at home. Secretly, Calvin helps Elizabeth get to work on what she wants to do. But tragedy strikes and Elizabeth finds herself a single mother. Working as a chemist becomes near impossible, so she sets up a lab in the kitchen and takes a job as a host on a television cooking show. Elizabeth is a host with a difference – she won’t pander to the women watching, but rather empower them to be treated as equals. But that leaves a lot of people unhappy

While a fair chunk of this book involves Elizabeth’s cooking show, it’s not something to be taken lightly. Elizabeth is a serious, brilliant character with an outlook on equality that is decades ahead of her contemporaries. She is met repeatedly with barriers and abuse but always responds with class and the correct answer. She’s without fear when protecting herself or her loved ones, although the reader does see her vulnerabilities in her head which are rationalised by science and fact. Elizabeth’s daughter Mad and dog Six-Thirty are just as engaging. (There are not many stories I could handle from the dog’s perspective, but Six-Thirty is a fantastic exception). Even the minor characters, good and bad, are memorable for their speech and actions. But overall, this book is Elizabeth and what a character she is. She’s definitely worth the reader’s respect and then some because boy, does she get a raw deal. I love how unconventional she was for her time and how she didn’t care what others should.

Bonnie Garmus has created a finely detailed world of academia and family life in Lessons in Chemistry. The descriptions of the world surrounding Elizabeth are just as detailed as those about the characters. The writing is detailed too, but not over the top. The style creates the kind of environment that makes you want to read and read more. It’s a while since I’ve read anything as original as Lessons in Chemistry and met such a memorable character in Elizabeth Zott. What a fantastic read!

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