Spotlight Review: LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY by Bonnie Garmus

From the publisher:

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • GOOD MORNING AMERICA BOOK CLUB PICK • A must-read debut! Meet Elizabeth Zott: a “formidable, unapologetic and inspiring” (PARADE) scientist in 1960s California whose career takes a detour when she becomes the unlikely star of a beloved TV cooking show in this novel that is “irresistible, satisfying and full of fuel. It reminds you that change takes time and always requires heat” (The New York Times Book Review).

“A unique heroine … you’ll find yourself wishing she wasn’t fictional.” —Seattle Times

Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, 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.

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

Laugh-out-loud funny, shrewdly observant, and studded with a dazzling cast of supporting characters, Lessons in Chemistry is as original and vibrant as its protagonist.

“Indefatigable and formidable, Elizabeth pushes the bounds of how women and their work are perceived in this thoroughly engaging debut novel.” —Booklist

“[An] energetic debut…A more adorable plea for rationalism and gender equality would be hard to find.” —Kirkus (starred review)

This is a fantastic debut novel that got lost on my Kindle (it came out in April), so thanks, Judy, for reminding me about it!

Elizabeth Zott is a feminist icon – or should be, if fictional characters could be. She is a chemist in the late 1950s-early 1960s when a woman’s place was in the home – in the kitchen and the bedroom, really, but she has no interest in that sort of life. She is studying for her master’s degree when she is attacked by her professor. She manages to elude the rapist, but again, this time period allows for women who are raped to get victimized all over again by the police and the judicial system. She is forced to leave school and lands a job at a research facility.

Zott’s boss is a misogynistic slime ball who steals her research and constantly degrades her. But he needs her because her specific research is being funded and no one else can do it. The lab has its star chemist, Calvin, who has the reputation of being brilliant and aloof. Calvin and Elizabeth meet when she steals some of his beakers, as her lab is bereft of necessary supplies. They meet again when he vomits on her, a first for a “meet cute” for me. Calvin has had a tragic life that rivals even Elizabeth’s tragic life, and they fall in love. But she has no interest in marrying. Instead, they live together and are very happy. They adopt a rescue dog that turns out to be about as brilliant as his owners and is a marvelous character in his own right. Six-thirty is his name, and there are snippets of his thoughts throughout the book, reminding me a bit of one of my favorite books, Garth Stein’s Racing in the Rain.

Tragedy befalls the happy couple, and Elizabeth’s life takes a turn when she finds out she is pregnant. She has the baby and is learning to parent when a neighbor helps her out. Harriet becomes her closest friend and ally. Needing a job, Elizabeth agrees to host an afternoon TV show, a cooking show that she is turning into Chemistry 101. Her fanbase grows but the old lech who runs the station wants her to dress sexy and make cocktails. She sticks to her guns and her show is a huge success. Eventually, she finds her way back to chemistry, her first love.

Elizabeth is a quirky, strong character and her story is both hilarious and heartbreaking, yet ultimately inspiring. She truly is unforgettable, as is this novel, which will appear on my best books of the year list. Book groups will have much to discuss here. Don’t miss it!

8/2022 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY by Bonnie Garmus. Doubleday; First Edition (April 5, 2022). ISBN: 978-0385547345. 400p.



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