Lessons in Chemistry

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
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!

The Diamond Eye

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kate Quinn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022

Now here’s a review I wish I’d written earlier. HarperCollins kindly sent me a copy of The Diamond Eye when it was released in exchange for an honest review, but I held off reading it because my book club really wanted to read it together. I wrote this review back in October (just before my book club meeting to collect my thoughts), but I never got around to posting it.

This was my third Kate Quinn novel as I’ve also read The Alice Network and The Rose Code. I read The Rose Code with book club last year and that one is still probably my favourite of the 3, but I can’t decide which I liked better of the other two. The Diamond Eye is set between Ukraine and America during the second world war. Mila Pavlichenko already has sharp-shooter training when war breaks out and immediately signs up for the war effort. Women weren’t precluded from fighting in the Soviet Union and when her skills are noticed, she quickly starts making a name for herself and winds up with her own team of snipers. Her continued success earns her the title of Lady Death and eventually she is sent to the US to rally Americans to the cause and develops an unlikely friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

The book starts out really strong. We learn of Mila’s history with her ex-husband and the child she’s been raising in his absence. It’s based on a true story and Mila herself is quite remarkable. That a single mother would have gotten her sharp-shooting certification at all is pretty intriguing, as is her success in the war. Women were so often relegated to the sidelines of the war effort – as nurses, or factory workers, or sometimes spies. But the Soviet Union allowed women on the front, which is quite unique on its own and presents a narrative I’ve not seen before in WWII fiction.

The first half of the book is really excellent. We accompany Mila as the Germans push the Soviets and the Soviets fight back. She develops both good and bad relationships with the men in her unit; succeeds despite the sexism of the senior male officials; and still has the odd verbal tussle with her frustrating ex, who is now a doctor in the war effort. The story is a little overly dramatized and I was annoyed that it followed a very similar sub-plot to The Rose Code, but otherwise, an excellent first half.

Unfortunately, the second half didn’t work as well for me. This book is too long. The entire second half of the book is set in America, but this plot wasn’t as engaging as the first half and was too dragged out. Had it been shorter, it might have been more effective, but I got bored around the 75% mark, which is a really bad part of the book to lose interest. Quinn takes a lot of liberty with the story in the second half and fabricates a lot of the central plot. Considering this book is centered around the real life of a real person, making up so much of the plot didn’t work for me. I felt that Quinn progressed the plot in intentionally dramatic ways and if those are not rooted in realism, it is a stain on the story. It makes the reader question what was based in fact and what was based in fiction. You have to commit one way or the other – either tell the truth, or create a fictional character with a different name. The Rose Code amalgamated several real people to form its fictional characters and I think that is a better approach if you want to deviate from real history. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

I think where this also lost me was the inclusion of another real life person, Eleanor Roosevelt, who is much more well known in real life than our protagonist. I didn’t know what to trust or where the line was for actual vs. fabricated history. The decision to include Eleanor’s “notes” and the POV of the gunmen were both interesting choices that definitely added to the drama of the story, but again, not the realism. Mila can anchor this story on her own. She is fascinating enough, Quinn didn’t need to bring Eleanor into the story in such a large way. I felt like it was a cheap way to build intrigue in the synopsis. I had similar thoughts about the inclusion of Prince Philip in The Rose Code, but I guess this is Quinn’s new thing and I’m sure it helps to sell books when you reference well-known historical figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Prince Philip.

Anyways, overall it is a good book and an interesting story. I learned a lot and was engaged through most of the book. It wasn’t everything it could have been, but it was entertaining. Taking a peak at goodreads, my rating is on the lower side compared to the rest of my book club, who enjoyed it more than me. I’m sitting at a solid 3 star read – not bad, not great.

The Paris Wife

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Paula McLain
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2011 (read Jun. 2022)

This was pretty much the most disappointing read of the decade. My book club selected it for our June meeting, which just so happened to be our 100th book and 10th anniversary as a club. We were really hoping for a winner and this absolutely did not deliver. 

The Paris Wife is set in the 1920’s and features the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. They meet in Chicago and quickly fall in love and marry before moving to Paris together for Ernest to pursue writing. I admit, I didn’t know very much about the lost generation and I did find it intriguing to learn that so many classic authors were acquainted with one another. At first it seems surprising, but after thinking about it a bit, I guess it kind of makes sense that affluence would produce so many classic writers. I don’t want to be salty, but it gives me the impression that the writers who received acclaim at the time are more a product of the society they kept rather than that they were actually challenging the field. I’m sure there were lots of non-white authors writing a lot more groundbreaking material at the time that went unrecognized.

Maybe that’s unfair because I haven’t actually read anything by Ernest Hemingway. The book may have briefly inspired some interest in picking up a Hemingway, but this was so flipping boring that I can’t stand to read another page about bull fighting and shit men, so it dashed any interest I might have held. 

I had a mild interest for some of the content, but I’m honestly questioning who the intended audience of this book is? Is it for Hemingway fans? Because I can’t see how anyone who likes Hemingway would finish the book feeling the same way, and anyone who was indifferent about Hemingway sure as hell won’t be anymore. Even though Hadley is at the centre of the story, it’s still not compelling. The synopsis paints the picture of an incredible bond and the ultimate betrayal, but the bond looked more like subservience to me and you could predict the betrayal a mile away. There are no likeable characters in the book, which isn’t always a problem for me, but I felt like we were supposed to like some of the characters, which is what made it more problematic.

I found nothing about their portrayal intriguing. Hemingway paints himself as a poor, struggling artist, but none of these people are poor, as evidenced by their frequent trips across the Atlantic and all around Europe. This was a boring account of a bunch of privileged, pretentious, white people. I honestly didn’t see the point. What was the theme of the book? Why did we all waste our time on this? If it’s not going to challenge my thinking in some way, it should at least be entertaining right?

To finish, the last thing I’m going to say is that the idea of my husband’s mistress climbing into bed with me and my husband and then f**king each other next to me is pretty much the most traumatizing, messed-up thing I’ve ever heard. I obviously didn’t like it and it’s probably mean to keep bulldozing it. I feel like I’m actually being harsher than I was at my book club, so I will say that the writing is good. Honestly, I feel like this could have worked really well as a biography or piece of non-fiction writing. I can see the interest in learning more about Hemingway and the lost generation, but as fiction it’s not compelling. It was too factual, with not enough emotion or liberty taken for fiction. I’d like to think that maybe the author was trying to evoke Hemingway’s sparse type of writing style, but it was my second book by her and the first one was boring too. So it’s time to move on – if you like semi-biographical fiction – this may be for you.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Malinda Lo
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, LGBTQIA+
Pub. Date: Jan. 2021 (read Feb. 2022)

This book has it all! A queer young adult, historical romance featuring an Asian-American teenager! I don’t read much YA anymore, but this is exactly the type of book that keeps me reading the genre. It’s a story that’s just as impactful for adults as it is for teenagers and covers a really interesting part of American history that I didn’t really know very much about. I’ve read a few books on Japanese internment camps and anti-Japanese sentiments during and after WWII, but I haven’t read very much about the red-scare, which was about anti-Chinese sentiments during the rise of communism post WWII.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club isn’t really about the red scare, but it does greatly influence the setting of the story. The book centers around 17 year old Lily Hu, a science and space loving teenager working hard to finish school and get into a good university so that she can continue to study science. At the same time, Lily is questioning her burgeoning sexuality when she meets Kath Miller and they discover a common interest in the Telegraph Club, a bar featuring a male impersonator that is heavily frequented by women. It’s the 1950’s, so there’s never a good time to be gay, and Lily’s worries are further exacerbated by the threat of deportation that hangs over every Chinese family due to the paranoia about communism.

I loved the writing in this book and found Lily to be an extremely relatable character. She just wants to be a “good girl” in the eyes of her parents, teachers, and friends, but their view of what is “good” is so narrow and when her friends start dating boys, she is also understandably curious about Kath and the Telegraph Club. She is very nervous and suffers from so much doubt – I felt like I was right there with her. Whether you’re queer or not, I feel like any teenager can relate to Lily’s insecurity as she explores her sexuality and the world suddenly opens up into this even bigger and scarier place. Add in all of the familial and cultural expectations that she also had to contend with, I really empathized with her.

What I think makes this book so unique is that there was no easy solution for Lily. It’s 1954, it’s not like it’s going to suddenly be okay for her to be gay or that she could expect her sexual orientation to be accepted by either her friends or family. There’s a lot of homophobia in the book, which was accurate to the time period. It was heartbreaking to me that all the lesbians in the book pretty much had to come to terms with separating from their friends and family to be with the person they loved. It was impossible to expect that things would turn out well for Lily given the time period and setting, so I really liked how the author chose to end the book as well. It’s hopeful, yet realistic. Definitely recommend this book to everyone!

Breath, Eyes, Memory

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 1994 (read Mar. 2022)

Breath, Eyes, Memory has been on my TBR for a very long time. It’s a modern classic and I finally picked up a copy last year in a second hand bookstore. I put it on my backlist books for this year to finally try and find the motivation to read it.

It blew me away. It was not at all the book I was expecting and I wish I had seen some trigger warnings for it because it is a heavy, emotional book. So TW for rape, sexual assault, eating disorders, and suicide. It was a hard book to read, but I can’t stop thinking about it since I read it and I know it’s a book that will stay with me.

Breath, Eyes, Memory tells the story of Sophie Caco, a young Haitian girl who has grown up with her Aunt while her mother tries to make a living in America. Her mother sends for her at the age of 12 and Sophie leaves behind everything she knows to move to America. I thought it was going to be a straightforward coming-of-age story about immigration, but it was so much more than that. At its core, this is a book about generational trauma.

Sophie grows up in America, but struggles to find herself there. The women in her family have been taught strict ideals about sexual purity that are enforced down from generation to generation. When Sophie has a falling out with her mother, she returns to her homeland to see her Aunt and Grandmother and try to make sense of the trauma that has been passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. At the same time, her mother is grappling with her own childhood trauma and the two women struggle to be there for one another, despite needing each other.

This is Danticat’s debut and she has a simple writing style, but I still found it to be extremely compelling. She doesn’t get caught up in side stories and every idea has its own place and meaning. It’s quite an emotional punch for how short the book is. It’s a very sad story and I ached for each one of the characters; questioning, but understanding how the cycle of violence always repeats itself. I’ve never heard of the kind of purity test that has been inflicted on the women of Haiti and I think it will forever haunt me, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for the girls who experience it. I don’t think I could re-read this book because it is quite upsetting, but I do feel better for having read it.