Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Bonnie Garmus may have taken quite a while to publish her debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, but it was certainly worth the wait, with even a TV show adaptation being in the making. The novel tells the story of Elizabeth Zott, a scientist who struggled during the 1950s amidst an all-male team at Hastings Research Institute, and in the 1960s became the unlikely star for a cooking show, and perhaps the catalyst to something much greater.
Table of contents
Bonnie Garmus Spins the Wheels of Change
Living as a woman in a man’s world presents difficulties which I believe everyone can understand and should be made aware of, even if roughly half the humans on this planet will never actually experience them. Though some of us might feel like we live in progressive enough parts of the world, it’s always important to remember things were fairly different not so long ago, as they were for Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist in Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.
To give you a short Lessons in Chemistry summary, the novel begins by introducing us to Elizabeth, living in 1960s California, the star of a revolutionary cooking show taking the country by storm, garnering supporters left and right. We’re made aware of her plight as a single mother and the general contours of her personal life, at which point the author reels time back by a decade or so, taking us to the 1950s, where her life was quite different.
Before turning into a rising star, Elizabeth was a chemist, which meant she was destined to be one of the sole women working in a field dominated by men. Despite the supposed open-mindedness and progressive nature scientists are meant to have, her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute has some rather backwards ideas about equality.
Nevertheless, amidst the old-world mentalities she does find a kindred spirit in Calvin Evans, a lonely and brilliant scientist keen on eschewing old and outdated conventions. Quickly enough, the two fall in love together, and it seems as if they both have the brightest of futures ahead of them. However, we see how it all went wrong, and how it led to the Elizabeth we were shown at the start of the book.
Once again, it seems as if her life is taking a turn for the better with the amount of clout generated by her appearance on the show, but unpredictable chain reactions turn her life into something much more. With Elizabeth as inspiration, more and more women around the country begin to see in themselves the power to break free from old chains, and needless to say, quite a few people are unhappy with that.
No surprise. Idiots make it into every company. They tend to interview well.― Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry
The War on Inequality in Lessons in Chemistry
Most of you reading this (and me writing this included) are a little too young to have witnessed the 1950s and 1960s, and can only learn about those seemingly-distant times from history books and the stories told by our elders. I don’t know about you, but to me it always seemed quite jarring to see the world as it was back then, not solely due to the technological leaps, but also due to the changes in mentality.
Though perhaps there are some people and factions who push the issue far too aggressively these days, there is no denying that women have had to overcome an arduous gauntlet of (sometimes lethal) challenges to get to where they are today. Lessons in Chemistry focuses quite specifically on the 50s and 60s, with the first half dedicated to the former, and the second half to the latter, roughly-speaking.
The first half of the book is essentially spent following what is essentially an exposition of Elizabeth’s personal and professional life, highlighting all of the issues she would have had to deal with as a chemist woman back then. Her time spent working at the Hastings Research Institute is given particular attention, showing quite convincingly who unfairly difficult it is for her to make a career.
In my personal opinion, Bonnie Garmus does an excellent job at maintaining a realistic outlook on the struggles faced by Elizabeth. That is to say, her trials are historically-accurate, and it never feels like the author has some sort of agenda to depict men as evil and women as paragons of virtue. She simply aims to show things as they were, and her honest approach makes the novel, to my knowledge, a believable representation of those times.
The second half of the novel is one I’ll discuss further below, but to keep things short, it is more dedicated to the increasingly widespread fight for women’s rights, not being limited to Elizabeth anymore. It’s an inspiring account of how a war can be waged against truly harmful ideals without spilling a drop of blood.
Courage is the root of change—and change is what we’re chemically designed to do.― Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry
Taking the Struggle in Stride
Though overtly it might seem like it to some people, I assure you that Lessons in Chemistry isn’t some piece of feminist propaganda aiming to spark a worldwide revolution. It remains, at its core, a novel, and from this particular perspective, I did find the first half to have dragged on for a little too long. I think we would have benefited, as readers, from simply starting Elizabeth’s journey in the 1950s, rather than getting that short introduction of her in the future.
Nevertheless, the expository first half does make for some interesting reading and allows us to get acquainted with a number of different characters. While a number of characters were developed in great depth, I found there to have also been a fair number of surface-level personalities. I can understand this choice, seeing as how those relatively unimportant people don’t end up playing major roles, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
Moving on to the second half, that’s where it feels like the story really takes off, and once again, I think it’s all due to the time-jumping caused by the introduction. This is the part where we see Elizabeth start to see herself as something greater than a small woman trying to make a life for herself in the midst of a chaotically-oppressive world.
Speaking of Elizabeth, she is without a doubt one of the more lovable and fascinating protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of following in recent memory. Despite all the spokes piercing her wheels, she maintains a believably-cheerful and can-do attitude, dropping nuggets of wisdom, quirky remarks and a few funny quips along the way.
Bonnie Garmus also adds some intrigue to it all fairly successfully by introducing the various people who would seek to hold to Elizabeth back and to stop the status quo from changing. Needless to say (and thankfully enough), the book never devolves into some sort of action thriller with lethal consequences, but the stakes are clearly felt, in large part, due to the adoration elicited in the reader by the main character.
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The Final Verdict
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is a one-of-a-kind literary fiction novel, telling a witty, insightful and inspiring story about one woman’s quest to change her world for the better. Giving us a believable window into the past, an exceptionally-likeable protagonist to follow, and a reasonable commentary on early feminism, it’s the sort of read which sticks with you long after you’re done with it.
If all that I’ve mentioned above sounds appealing to you and are seeking the kind of heartwarming novel touching with grace on some of the more difficult topics in human life, then I strongly recommend you give this novel a chance.
Bonnie Garmus is an American author who used to work as a copywriter and creative director in the United States, Switzerland and Colombia. In 2022 she published her debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, which instantly became an international bestseller, even earning itself a television adaptation.