It’s not necessary to love chemistry, or even science, to enjoy “Lessons in Chemistry.” Debut author Bonnie Garmus takes us back to the late ’50s and early ’60s as we experience life through the eyes of a capable, intelligent, scientist who happens to be a woman. The fact that she’s a woman? It’s important because in that time, opportunities for women were extremely limited. Let’s face it, 60 years later we are still proud of the fact that we (finally) have a woman vice president. Sixty years ago, women weren’t accepted into what were typically thought of as “male” endeavors. Chemistry was definitely a field for men, no matter how brilliant, how dedicated, how hard-working a supremely qualified woman may have been.
And make no mistake, protagonist Elizabeth Zott was the embodiment of all three traits. She was extremely intelligent, very hard-working, and totally dedicated to research. In spite of a childhood that would defeat many a strong personality, she dedicated her life to science. However, her beauty and her femininity work against her as her superiors, all men, do their best to degrade her talents, harass her, and destroy her ability to work as a scientist. Yet Elizabeth perseveres, and along the way she even finds love.
But love, for Elizabeth, isn’t going to be easy. And the man she falls in love with has a background as checkered and heartbreaking as hers. Garmus movingly writes, “When one is raised on a steady diet of sorrow, it’s hard to imagine that others might have had an even larger serving.” Both of these emotionally flawed individuals find utter happiness with each other—it’s as strong as any chemical reaction. And then the unthinkable happens, resulting in Elizabeth trying to raise a child alone. She is fired from her job and must try to support herself, her child, and their brilliant and charismatic dog, Six-Thirty. When she is offered a job on television hosting a cooking show, it’s the perfect opportunity to use her skills to teach not just cooking, but chemistry.
As we soon realize, Elizabeth is not just teaching cooking, or even chemistry, during her 30 minutes of screen time. She’s teaching equality, respect, honesty, and the fact that we all—regardless of race, religion, or gender—are equal. And she teaches such concepts scientifically. Because facts are facts, and you can’t argue with science. Or, at least, you shouldn’t.
Regardless of her successes, much of Elizabeth’s life is truly heartbreaking, and there is much sadness in the story. But there is a lot of humor as well, as we see in Elizabeth the strength we’d like to see in all women. We see in Elizabeth’s fabulous mothering style (the irony is that she never wanted a child) that treating a child as an equal in some ways, with respect for intelligence and independence, can have astounding results. The same can be seen in her interactions with her lovely dog, Six-Thirty. He learns almost a thousand words, which no one believes. But with the luxury of hindsight, we know that Chaser, the brilliant border collie, had, indeed, learned over a thousand words.
Something I noted while reading this book is that I often stopped to reread passages. Garmus’ writing is extraordinary, and her insightful commentaries on life, religion, bigotry, misogyny, and stupidity result in passages that are absolutely worth sharing. Unfortunately, there are too many to share in this brief review. But we can imagine, only too clearly, Elizabeth’s friend Harriet’s husband, whom Garmus describes with detail and insight: “…it was his low-grade stupidity she abhorred—his dull, opinionated, know-nothing charmless complexion; his ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, insensitivity; and above all, his wholly undeserved faith in himself. Like most stupid people, Mr. Sloane wasn’t smart enough to know just how stupid he was.”
One last quote (please indulge me) because this particular quote is Elizabeth on her cooking show, making a chicken pot pie and comparing it to society. “A successful chicken pot pie is like a society that functions at a highly efficient level. Call it Sweden. Here every vegetable has its place. No single bit of produce demands to be more important than another. And when you throw in the additional spices—garlic, thyme, pepper, and sodium chloride—you’ve created a flavor that not only enhances each substance’s texture but balances the acidity. Result? Subsidized childcare. Although I’m sure Sweden has its problems, too. Skin cancer at the very least.”
Be prepared to laugh, to grieve, and to root for Elizabeth and everyone in the family that she forges from neighbors, old friends, and new acquaintances. Family is not simply the folks on your family tree, as Elizabeth’s daughter Mad realizes; it’s not created by biological blood ties, as another friend discovers; family means people who are there to love you and support you. Unconditionally. Even the four-legged familial members. And while I don’t reread most books, this is one I’ll be hanging onto for a while. I’d like to reread it and spend more time savoring the fine writing, the exquisite plot, the wonderful characters, and that incredible dog.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.