- Debut Novel
- 400 pages
- Released April 2022
- Rated 4.43 stars on Goodreads
- Contemporary Fiction
- Historical Fiction
- Scientist Protagonist
- Elements of Feminism
Set in California in the 1960s, Lessons in Chemistry is the story of Elizabeth Zott. Zott is a female scientist on an all-male research team in a time where women were more often housewives than chemists. Zott is working on an important project when she meets Calvin Evans, an infamous scientist also working for the same research company. While the two seem like an unlikely pair, their time together is much more than romantic chemistry—that is, until Evans suffers from a tragic accident.
Left alone with a dog and an unborn child, Elizabeth has to learn to handle motherhood as an unwed mother. Struggling with inequality, the difficulties of her field, and her role to her child, Zott finds herself reluctantly leaving the research facility and starting a cooking show with a fellow parent. Her unusual approach to cooking proves revolutionary and gains her a large following. Yet, as her following grows, so does the implication that women don’t just belong in the kitchen.
Compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Lessons in Chemistry is described as witty, laugh-out-loud funny, and must-read debut.
TW: This review talks of sexual abuse
Let me start off my saying how widely well-received Lessons in Chemistry is. I picked through quite a lot of reviews after finishing this novel, and it consistently rates high among readers. On Goodreads, it’s rated steadily at 4.5 stars. Amazon reviews are similar with less than 7% of 9,000 reviewers rating it 1-3 stars. Well—I suppose I’ll be in the 7th percent.
I picked up this book because I’ve been attempting to read more debut novels this year. While scientific protagonists aren’t my usual go-to, I love a good romance and I thoroughly enjoyed The Love Hypothesis, The Soulmate Equation, and The Kiss Quotient. All three of these novels are light, easy romances that contain female protagonists in the STEM fields. Going into this novel, I expected to find the same type of story. Though Lessons in Chemistry was far from what I was expecting.
I would agree that the tone and writing style of Bonnie Garmus is very similar to that of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but the similarities end there (for me, at least). While described as witty and laugh-out-loud funny, I didn’t find Lessons in Chemistry to be either. In fact, it was quite tragic what the protagonist went through.
Very early on in the story, readers are introduced to Zott’s unfortunate introduction into the scientific community. She is raped by a superior and because of this, is forced into relinquishing her hopes of a PhD and leaving her school’s program. When she is hired by Hastings Research Institute, the research company, she again is tested with highly inappropriate levels of gender inequality.
While I’m not saying that gender inequality wasn’t prevalent in the late 1950s/early 1960s (because it was), my research indicates that gender roles had already begun to change in the late 1940s when women began to complete men’s jobs during WWII. Second Wave Feminism seems to have started sometime in the 1960s, which is likely the timeline that Garmus is trying to target. While I wasn’t able to find much about female scientists, in particular, in the 1950s/’60s, I did find this interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine about Margaret Rossiter, a woman that worked in STEM during that time and related her experiences. She has since devoted her life to the women that have been written out of scientific history.
While part of Zott’s story follows Rossiter’s findings, much of it remains unspoken for. Upon reading comments on other reviews, I discovered that many female scientists from the time didn’t feel they were treated similarly to Zott, like this one from Elyse Walters.
“In my own life in ‘California’ -during the 50’s, 60’s… I was a Kinesiology major at UC Berkeley. I never felt like I was in a man’s world. My organic chemistry classes were grueling-but that wasn’t because I was a woman. In my experience–I never had a problem. I wasn’t sexually harassed.”Elyse Walters, Goodreads Review, April 6, 2022
Something I found very frustrating about this novel, in general, was the stereotyping. Everyone around Elizabeth is stereotyped in some way or another, and she is, as well. Calvin Evans, the man who is devoted to his work, is extremely left-brained, and thinks of everything as logically as possible. He’s a rower and an Ivy-League graduate, with a perfect record. Then we have Harriet, the woman next door who is in an unhappy marriage where her husband abuses her. She has several kids of her own and fits the housewife perspective that Zott wants to hard to break. And, of course, we can’t forget about Walter Pine, the TV show producer that wants Elizabeth glammed up and in dresses to satiate his boss, but also has dealt with her “masculinity” first-hand.
Each character has a role to play, but yet none of them really DO anything, which I find very frustrating. Harriet continually puts up with her husband’s abuse, Calvin leaves the house to Elizabeth after his accident (and has all intentions of convincing her to marry him), and even Walter is reluctant to stand up to his boss. These ends are all conveniently tied in a nice little bow at the end of this book, thanks to Elizabeth, of course. And, don’t even get me start on Elizabeth’s daughter, who somehow miraculously can walk herself to the library, research, and associate with strangers at 5 years old? Tell me how that’s realistic.
Yet, these character analyses beg the question—why is Elizabeth the way she is? Is it because of the rape? The injustice? The gender inequalities? If women supposedly went through this all the time during the ‘50s and ‘60s, then why aren’t all women stepping out to break boundaries? Elizabeth is a character from 2022 trying to implement social causes that haven’t happened yet. To me, it comes across as if someone from 2022 created her character, rather than Elizabeth truly belonging in her timeline. The problem with this? She’s unrealistically out of place and this throws the plotline off. During this time, women would have been making more practiced, thought-out moves to change society. Instead, Elizabeth just goes off the rails by calling out her superiors, quitting her job (when she re-hired), and other actions, that ultimately make life even more difficult for her than if she had been smart about her decisions in the first place. As a woman, this infuriates me.
In fact, I found Miss Frask’s character to be much more realistic of a 1950s female character breaking boundaries than Elizabeth’s character. While Miss Frask starts off the story as an antagonist, we quickly learn how she became this way, especially as she makes further advances to help Elizabeth later on in the story. While I won’t put any spoilers in here about what she does, I think her character depth is much more significant, in some ways, than Elizabeth’s.
As far as calling this book funny, there were a few moments during the cooking show portion of the book that were unique, but I certainly didn’t think of this book as a comedy. The advertising for Lessons in Chemistry reads as a rom-com and the tone of the book just doesn’t fit this description. The book does have important themes that highlight social issues of the time, but it’s terribly sad—it might be one of the saddest books I’ve read this year, if ever. I’m not sure why Garmus’ PR team marketed this the way they did as it’s certainly misleading. That being said, had this book been depicted as a historical fiction re-telling of social causes in STEM, I would have perhaps looked at it differently going into it. Yet, the bright cover and the cute, animated Elizabeth on the front would have readers thinking in a different direction.
I didn’t love Lessons in Chemistry. I thought Elizabeth was an unreliable protagonist and she makes rash decisions that affect her own well-being throughout the timeline. In addition to this, there is SO much male-bashing and religion-bashing in this book, that I found myself frustrated with Elizabeth’s constant negative perspective, especially for someone who insisted that she had so many far-reaching goals.
The one aspect I absolutely loved about this book was the dog, Six-Thirty. While his name is absolutely atrocious, my understanding is that the author’s own personal dog is named 99, so perhaps it was her way of weaving her own life into Elizabeth’s. Either way, Six-thirty is the intelligent LOGICAL character this book needed. He is selfless and loving in all the best ways and he’s truly what keeps Elizabeth and her daughter on track. I absolutely loved Six-Thirty and I think his perspective is the voice that many readers give their own dogs. Truly, I would have enjoyed the book entirely written from his perspective as I looked forward to the passages that he narrated.
Overall, I don’t think that Bonnie Garmus’ book was for me. Lessons in Chemistry highlights some important social inequalities during the 1950s and 1960s, but there are a lot of inaccuracies reflected through the characters in this book, which makes me wonder how many of the events were realistic, as well.
If you are familiar with the timeline of this novel or have studied women in STEM, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the stories Elizabeth tells and the things that she goes through. Do you feel her character was realistic? Leave a comment below and let me know!
Not sure what to read next? Check out my last review on Agatha of Little Neon by clicking here!