My bestie Rebecca lent this to me, and I am glad she did—I don’t think I would have picked it up otherwise, and that would have been my loss. Lessons in Chemistry stands out. It is quite a literary novel, full of narrative tricks and idiosyncrasies and enough contrived character circumstances to make John Irving or Heather O’Neill jealous. But Bonnie Garmus is on a mission in this book. She’s laser-focused on the unfairness of life—not just in terms of institutional sexism but also the way in which life robs us of the ones we love the most. This is a sad yet hopeful story that made me laugh and cry, and sometimes those are the best.
Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. She would be a PhD., except for—well, you know, she’s a woman in science in the 1960s. So she ends up as a researcher at a small institute in California, where she unexpectedly falls in love with Calvin Evans, the institute’s brightest and most eccentric researcher. But when Calvin dies, Elizabeth is left as a single (unwed!) mom, and sexism continue to impede her ability to earn money or move forward in the world. Opportunity arrives in the form of an afternoon cooking show—for Elizabeth to host—but neither the television producer who discovers her nor Elizabeth herself know what to make of the success of Supper at Six. Meanwhile, Elizabeth tries to raise her precocious daughter, Mad, the only way she knows how: scientifically.
There’s probably many ways for this book to lose the reader. Garmus’s narration is, by and large, flat albeit extensive in description, prone to tangents and meandering towards its point. The dialogue sputters onto the page in fits and spurts before drying up again. Each chapter flits between times and memories, occasionally with an attention span so frenetic it’s hard to read. The characters are caricatures—some of them so sexist and boorish it borders on the incredible, others so buffoonish or farcical as to nearly undermine the seriousness of the story. But I think that’s rather the point, and that’s kind of what Garmus is getting at here—sexism is silly.
This is a story about a woman who refuses to settle. Throughout Lessons in Chemistry, so many people—including other women—tell Elizabeth that she just has to accept the way the world is. Maybe you can make a little headway, but eventually you have to give in and play by the patriarchy’s rules. You have to be a Miss Frask instead of an Elizabeth Zott.
Garmus perfectly portrays so many of the tropes I see in social justice spaces—women weighed down by so much internalized misogyny it’s painful to see; men who profess to be allies but only if it means you’ll sit down now, please, you’re being disruptive; people of all genders who stand with you and mean well but really don’t understand just how far the fight for liberation must go. From Frask to Walter to Harriet, the characters jump off the page because they are caricatures.
Indeed, Lessons in Chemistry rather feels like Garmus is screaming into the void. Because the world has not changed much since the 1960s.
Last year I watched Picture a Scientist, a Netflix documentary about historical and present-day sexual harassment in science. While the language we use and some laws have changed, what Elizabeth experiences here remains very much part of women and non-binary people’s experiences in science. Moreover, if there is a flaw in this book, it is the whiteness of it—racialized women continue to face even more hurdles than women like me and Elizabeth.
So Garmus wrote a book to scream, and scream, and scream, at the unjustness of it all.
There is a love story here too. It’s couched in the language of beakers and rowing and leash laws, but it’s here, on paper, a slow-burn romance that ends too soon and turns into a meditation on grief. Elizabeth and Calvin never had a chance. Calvin and his mother never had a chance. Calvin and Mad never had a chance.
Sometimes life just happens, and you never get a chance.
I loved all of Elizabeth’s relationships in the book. She’s so careful with her daughter yet so oblivious. Mad is a delightful child, slightly creepy but never in an overwhelming way—I don’t think I would have liked to see her try to carry the whole book, but as a protagonist who joins us midway through, she is great. Harriet too—her development from housewife with little ambition to Elizabeth’s close friend … it’s just so neat, and in the hands of another writer perhaps could have been trite, but Garmus somehow pulls it off.
That’s what this is: a magic trick. This book is so raw yet so carefully and precisely crafted, a chemical—nay, alchemical—chain reaction of storytelling culminating in a coda that left me crying. When Elizabeth signs off, when she finally reads the cue cards … well, not to spoil it, but there were tears in my eyes—though so much of the finale is predictable, it is predictable in such a way that Garmus has earned it through foreshadowing. The payoff is so well executed, so satisfying, that I just feel like I’ve come full circle.
I want this to be a movie.