Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus, USA 2022

Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus, USA 2022


Elizabeth Zott is a scientist, unique (definitely ‘on the spectrum’) and driven. She resents the unequal world of the 1950s and the fact that her academic ambitions are thwarted by lecherous men in power who feel that a woman’s place is in the home, tending to the wants and needs of a husband. But Elizabeth does not have a husband: she has a soulmate, a dog and, eventually, a child. When academia shuts its doors to her she finds herself presenting a cooking show with a scientific twist. An intelligent, if at times unfathomable, woman, she believes that she can use her show to make women understand their worth and follow their dreams.

I began this book without expectations; it was listed as a ‘best seller, but I had never heard of it, and I had no idea what it was about. Initially I enjoyed its quirkiness; however, I very soon began to wonder whether the book deserves the label of light-hearted humour or whether it is best described by a more serious label. Most of the humour is generated by gender inequality, which is the theme at the centre of the book, but parallel to this (sometimes uncomfortable) humour there are graphic descriptions of attempted rape, Garmus’ strident anti-Catholicism and the attitude that anyone with even a grain of intelligence should be cultivating a scientific, atheistic approach to life.

I did not connect at all with the main character: I admired her intelligence and her drive, but she is standoffish, superior, self-absorbed and seems to lack in warmth and normal social skills. I loved the dog (Six-Thirty), who understands almost 1,000 words and has some very deep and poignant thoughts about what is going on around him. The child is overly precocious (which is probably to be expected when its mother spends all her time converting the world around her into chemical formulae and the kitchen into a laboratory while drawing up reading lists for her four-year-old that would have most high-school students scratching their heads).

Bonnie Garmus (iNews UK)

Zott may be physically planted in the conservative, traditional, unequal 1950s but mentally she belongs in the twenty-first century. Her responses and comments are responses and comments that require a twenty-first century understanding of the gender problem and a corresponding willingness to do something about it. Consequently there is much in the book that seems uncomfortably out of place from a time perspective; there is also much that challenges the laws of believability. It is possible, however, that it is just this departure from reality that appeals to many readers.

In order to gain any kind of enjoyment from Lessons in Chemistry, it is important to neither take it seriously nor to use it as a text book for how gender inequality was perceived in the 1950s. Ignoring the problems with the main character, the descriptions of sexual violence in a book supposed to be humorous, a ludicrously contrived plot, the author’s negative stance on religion, the main character’s irritating translation of everyday kitchen commodities into chemical jargon, and the fact that, according to the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, Garmus was simply one of an army of people creating the book, then there may be a sliver of something remaining that would allow the book to be labelled as a ‘light read’ but, on the basis of content, definitely not as a ‘best seller’.

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