Lessons in Chemistry is the debut novel from Bonnie Garmus, and one of 2022’s hottest titles—it was ultimately purchased by Doubleday after an auction which garnered bids from 16 different publishers, and Brie “Captain Marvel” Larson is starring in a TV adaptation for Apple’s streaming service. It’s the current #1 bestselling hardcover novel in the Bay Area. So I went into it with high hopes.
Initially, I found a bit over-the-top in its whimsicality. Most of the book is from main character Elizabeth Zott’s point of view, but occasionally, we’re in the head of her dog, Six-Thirty (named for the hour the then-stray entered her home for the first time). And Elizabeth’s daughter is one of those hyper-precocious, wise-beyond-her-years tots who reads Faulkner and Nabokov for fun while the other first graders are still working on their ABC’s. But by the time I had finished this nearly-400-page book, it had thoroughly won me over.
From the start, I appreciated the fact that Elizabeth is an angry character. She had the misfortune to be a woman in STEM at a time when a female scientist was, at best, an object of curiosity. All Elizabeth wants to do is be a chemist. Her educational career was cut short when her academic advisor tried to rape her—she managed to stab him with a sharpened pencil, but that act of self-defense was enough to get her kicked out of the program. Now employed at a research institute, she finds herself constantly belittled by men, who are happy to steal the credit for her work but refuse to fully accept her as a colleague.
Through a series of circumstances, Elizabeth winds up pregnant and unmarried, which is enough to get her axed from her job. She loves her child Madeline fiercely, but with no way to support her, things are looking dark, until she winds up being discovered by the father of one of her daughter’s classmates, who works in local TV. He wants to make the beautiful and charismatic chemist the host of an afternoon cooking show geared toward housewives. She reluctantly takes the job, but refuses to dumb it down, urging women to “take risks” and reminding them that “fearlessness in the kitchen translates to fearlessness in life.” And since cooking is chemistry, why not refer to salt as sodium chloride and mention the health benefits of gamma-tocopherol in walnuts?
Elizabeth’s no-nonsense approach and refusal to talk down to her audience makes her a star, but she still isn’t happy. She wants to be a scientist, not a TV personality. But no one will give her a shot. “She only seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.”
If Elizabeth hadn’t been so angry, the book would have been terminally twee; if her anger hadn’t been leavened by wry humor, it would have been too much of a downer. Instead, it manages to strike just the right note at every turn.
Lessons in Chemistry is set many decades in the past, but women are still dealing with these issues today—perhaps that’s why it’s resonated so strongly with modern audiences of all ages. This is a funny, quirky and, yes, whimsical novel, but Garmus draws you into Elizabeth’s world, until you find yourself tearing up over her setbacks, cheering her on, and hoping she will triumph at last.