Fiction, Historical

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

I read this book in September of last year when I was in a “mid-century feminist fiction” mood and had just finished The Kitchen Front and Bloomsbury Girls and was looking for a book with a similar feel. This one had just come across my desk from the publisher and I hungrily devoured it in one sitting.

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing.

But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute take a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with – of all things – her mind. True chemistry results.

But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later, Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (‘combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride’) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

Meet the unconventional, uncompromising Elizabeth Zott.

Review

I’ve been trying to write this review for months now, since I finished the book back in September (as I write this it’s currently January, still three months from publication). And right now, I’m a bit scared because this book has already been deemed a celebrity book club selection and I’ve seen those endorsements ruin the potential of some of my favorite books. It’s already in pre-production to be turned into a show by Brie Larson’s production company for Apple TV. It’s not going to need me to champion it. It’ll be a best seller. But it’s tied for with Bloomsbury Girls (out in May) for my favorite, absolute favorite, book of 2022.

It’s exciting when I read a book that I think has the potential to be a bestseller and then people find it and love it at the store, and then a week or two later, it hits the list. It’s like I’ve predicted something, almost like winning the lottery. This is also the first year I haven’t read much other than ARCs. So when I pick a book up, it’s not yet out and I don’t know what it’s promotion is going to lead it to. I thought that was the case when I picked up the ARC for Lessons in Chemistry and am glad I did not Google it until I was finished. It’s no fun to pick something to recommend that’s already going to get publicity out to wazoo – there’s no winning the lottery spark to that. But if I had known, I wouldn’t have read it, and then I wouldn’t have gotten to know Elizabeth, Mad, Six-Thirty, and all of their friends.

They are all brilliant, and I love them, and I want them to be shared with the whole wide world. Elizabeth is a blunt woman, a woman who tells the truth, shares her mind, and doesn’t particularly think on the consequences. Mad, Madeline if pressed, is her daughter, and a firebrand genius just like her mother. Six-Thirty is their dog, sentient POV character and empathetic nanny to Mad. I’d have a dog if someone promised me he’d be just like Six-Thirty, and I’m deathly allergic – that’s how much I like him.

Elizabeth creates, around Mad, her own found family. Hesitant at first to trust anyone else, she grows close to her neighbor and boss (who’s daughter is in Mad’s class if I recall correctly) and eventually, with a former antagonist at the lab she worked at until she found out Mad was on the way. Mad befriends a man of the cloth who had met her father, Six-Thirty feels guilt over what happened to Calvin, and despite being absent for a great deal of the book, he is the glue that ultimately brings all of our characters together.

While the plot, and Elizabeth’s inherent assumption that she should be taken seriously as a chemist, are paramount to the story, it is the humanity found in everyone else, including Six-Thirty, that makes this a stand out book. It may get a celebrity recommendation, it may explode on TikTok, but I encourage you, ignore all that. If you want a really good book about a great group of characters, even if you don’t love children and dogs, please read Lessons in Chemistry. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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