Author: Bonnie Garmus
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022
I have been seeing this book absolutely everywhere this year! When it first popped on my radar I immediately wrote it off because it sounded kind of boring and I wasn’t interested in reading about a cooking show. But then I kept seeing non stop reviews for it and my book club decided to read it and I became pretty excited to finally pick it up.
I was a little bit nervous because I find when a book is really hyped up it often doesn’t live up to the hype, but this one actually did! I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t have the highest expectations, but it was so much funnier than I was anticipating! I’ve seen it compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which I think is apt; and I would also compare it to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
Lessons in Chemistry is set in the 1960’s and focuses on the life of Elizabeth Zott, a chemist turned TV cooking personality. As you can imagine, being a female chemist in the 1960’s was not a fun time and Elizabeth is forced to endure sexist attitudes everywhere she goes. She is fired from her research job when she becomes pregnant and a series of mishaps land her with the opportunity to work in television, which she begrudgingly accepts in order to provide for herself and her young daughter.
I do want to acknowledge upfront that this is 100% white feminism rhetoric. I’m sure that women of colour were a lot more concerned with the human rights movement and segregation in the early 1960’s than they were about breaking into the extremely racist and sexist academic spaces. While Elizabeth had limited access to these spaces, BIPOC women were shut out of them entirely and it’s important to acknowledge this disparity and that the setting is very white feminist in nature.
Acknowledging the limitations of the narrative, I enjoyed it for what it was. I think it’s a real skill to write the kind of conflict that is both relatable and enraging while maintaining sharp wit and humour. In this case I think the humour is actually key because otherwise the narrative could easily get bogged down in anger, turning it from a perceptive comedy to a drama. Some might argue that with these kinds of themes, maybe it should be a drama, but I liked how Garmus uses the juxtaposition of straight-faced humour to expose blatant sexism.
The women in this story were a joy to read. Elizabeth is downright comical, which eases the tension, while Mad and Harriett are great supporting characters. I was even endeared to characters like Ms. Frask by the end of the book. In some ways, women who enable sexism sometimes seem worse than men, so it was prudent to be reminded that those women are often victims themselves. Although it is a fine line and we should be wary of any kind of gatekeeping, especially keeping in mind that though white women have broken into many of these academic spaces in more recent years, BIPOC women are often still excluded.
There are some really frustrating antagonists in the book, but there were still some meaningful male characters. I had a soft spot for Calvin and I thought characters like Dr. Mason, Walter, and the Reverend were also great additions. The inclusion of a dog as a character is both genius and insane. It feels like it should be out of place, but it somehow works so well in the story. Which is really what left me so impressed with the book. It has a surprisingly large cast of characters and yet somehow they’re all well realized. I think it’s a skill to carry so many meaningful secondary characters and when done well, it really adds to a story. It’s what brings a story to life and enables the characters to walk right off the page.
I haven’t really gotten into the plot – this book covers a lot of ground and I liked the way Garmus ties everything together. I did find the ending a bit abrupt and I didn’t like the storyline about Calvin’s past and the mysterious donors. It got a little bit confusing and garbled at the end and I don’t think it added much to the overall story.
Keeping in mind the limitations of the character diversity, I do think the book captures women’s desire to break out of traditional gender roles and find their own place in the world. It’s not a new concept in 2022, but I still enjoyed Elizabeth’s character and the humour Garmus brought to the story. She is unapologetic about her desire for more and she doesn’t ask permission or try to manipulate her way into her field. She knows she deserves to be there on the basis of her drive and accomplishments and she’s not going to dim her shine to make some self-important man feel like he’s doing her a favour.
So overall, I can acknowledge that the book has some shortcomings, but I still had a great time reading it!