Reviewed by Wendy Tucker
Bonnie Garmus was 65 years old when this, her first novel, was published in 2022 and this fact should give hope to all those procrastinating writers out there. She was a senior copy writer and the only woman at a meeting where she was yet again spoken over, interrupted, disregarded and her ideas usurped. That night she wrote the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry while thinking of her mother, a nurse who wanted to be a surgeon, and wondering just how far professional woman have come since the 1950s.
And so, Elizabeth Zott was created, a chemist, battling the sexist 1950s when woman didn’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t do science. Zott is glamorous (that sharp pencil hidden in the immaculate chignon is useful for jotting down ideas but also for warding off unwanted sexual advances), pragmatic, tough and relentlessly logical. It is her deadpan reactions that supply much of the humour even when dreadful things happen to her.
Elizabeth’s work and brilliance is underestimated, and she is treated as an assistant or secretary and the object of sexual harassment, except by Calvin Evans, another brilliant scientist, who falls in love with her. She will not marry; her work is published under her name and she will not change that.
They have a child and a dog. Both the daughter and the dog are taught a lot by their unconventional parents. Both careers advance.
After some most unfortunate events, Elizabeth finds herself alone, unemployed and a single mother. She takes a job as the hostess of a TV cooking show for housewives called Supper at Six because she needs the money and because cooking is really chemistry. She becomes a sensation. She calls vinegar and salt acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride and subverts the program to become, of course, lessons in chemistry.
At first pigeonholed as a woman’s holiday read it became an international best seller enjoyed by both sexes as funny, intelligent, wise and beautifully written by a highly skilled wordsmith.