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Lessons in Chemistry


Lessons in Chemistry

It's not necessary to love chemistry or even science to enjoy LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY. Debut author Bonnie Garmus takes us back to the late 1950s and early ’60s as we experience life through the eyes of a capable, intelligent, female scientist. At that time, opportunities for women were extremely limited. They weren't accepted into what were typically thought of as "male" endeavors. Chemistry was undoubtedly a field for men, no matter how brilliant, dedicated or hard-working a supremely qualified woman may have been.

Elizabeth Zott is the embodiment of all three of these traits. In spite of a childhood that would defeat many a strong personality, she dedicates her life to science. However, her beauty and femininity work against her as her superiors --- all men --- do their best to degrade her talents, harass her and destroy her ability to work as a scientist. Still, she perseveres, and along the way she even finds love.

"While I don't reread most books, this is one I'll be hanging onto for a while. I'd like to spend more time savoring the fine writing, exquisite plot, wonderful characters and that incredible dog."

For Elizabeth, though, love isn't going to be easy. And the man she falls in love with has a background as checkered and heartbreaking as hers. Garmus movingly writes, "When one is raised on a steady diet of sorrow, it's hard to imagine that others might have had an even larger serving." Both of these emotionally flawed individuals find utter happiness with each other; it's as strong as any chemical reaction. But then the unthinkable happens, resulting in Elizabeth trying to raise a child alone. She is fired from her job and must support herself, her daughter Mad, and their brilliant and charismatic dog, Six-Thirty.

When Elizabeth is offered a job hosting a TV cooking show, it's the perfect opportunity to demonstrate not only her culinary skills, but also her expertise in chemistry. As we soon realize, she’s not just teaching cooking, or even chemistry, during her 30 minutes on the air. She's teaching equality, respect, honesty and the fact that all of us --- regardless of race, religion or gender --- are equal. And she explains these concepts scientifically. Because facts are facts, and you can't argue with science. Or, at least, you shouldn't.

Despite her successes, much of Elizabeth's life is truly heartbreaking, and there is much sadness in her story. But there is a lot of humor as well, as we see in her the strength that we'd like to see in all women. Her fabulous mothering style proves that treating a child as an equal in some ways, with respect to intelligence and independence, can have astounding results. The same can be said for her interactions with her lovely dog. Six-Thirty learns almost a thousand words, which no one believes. But with the luxury of hindsight, we know that Chaser, the brilliant border collie, had indeed done just that.

Garmus' writing is extraordinary, and her insightful commentaries on life, religion, bigotry, misogyny and stupidity result in passages that are absolutely worth sharing. Unfortunately, there are too many to include in this brief review. But we can imagine, only too clearly, Elizabeth's friend Harriet's husband, whom Garmus describes so vividly: " was his low-grade stupidity she abhorred --- his dull, opinionated, know-nothing charmless complexion; his ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, insensitivity; and above all, his wholly undeserved faith in himself. Like most stupid people, Mr. Sloane wasn't smart enough to know just how stupid he was."

Here, Elizabeth is on her cooking show, making a chicken pot pie and comparing it to society: "A successful chicken pot pie is like a society that functions at a highly efficient level. Call it Sweden. Here every vegetable has its place. No single bit of produce demands to be more important than another. And when you throw in the additional spices --- garlic, thyme, pepper, and sodium chloride --- you've created a flavor that not only enhances each substance's texture but balances the acidity. Result? Subsidized childcare. Although I'm sure Sweden has its problems, too. Skin cancer at the very least."

Be prepared to laugh, grieve, and root for Elizabeth and everyone in the family that she forges from neighbors, old friends and new acquaintances. Family is not simply the folks on your family tree, as Mad realizes; it's not created by biological blood ties, as another friend discovers. Family means people who are there to love and support you unconditionally --- and this includes your four-legged friends. While I don't reread most books, this is one I'll be hanging onto for a while. I'd like to spend more time savoring the fine writing, exquisite plot, wonderful characters and that incredible dog.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on April 21, 2022

Lessons in Chemistry
by Bonnie Garmus

  • Publication Date: April 5, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Humor
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 038554734X
  • ISBN-13: 9780385547345