Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Review by Annabel

Sometimes the hype is true, and a publisher’s lead-title for the season really is worth the advance praise heaped on it. This is the case with Lessons in Chemistry. What’s more Garmus has published her debut novel at the age of 64 pouring a lifetime’s experience into her book. The title promises chemistry, and having a scientific background, I was bound to read it, and crossed my fingers for some real (but accessible) science, not just sexual chemistry: and yes, we get both!

The plot runs from the early 1950s through the 1960s, but we begin in the middle at 1961 as Elizabeth Zott is packing her five-year-old daughter’s lunch box and slipping a note in with it. The first paragraph immediately reels in the reader,

Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbelt-less cars without giving it a second thought; back before anyone knew there’d even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.

It was the lunch box that was to be the next turning point in Elizabeth’s life. When she discovers that Amanda Pine was eating Mad’s carefully balanced lunch every day, she stormed into Amanda’s father’s office to complain. Walter Pine is a daytime TV show producer and confronted with a woman who ‘looked down at him like a battlefield medic assessing whether or not he was worth saving,’ was smitten – he’d found his next TV star!

It transpires that Walter, divorced, was rubbish at making lunch for his daughter, so Mad always let Amanda eat hers in the name of friendship. Mad, a gifted child, found it hard to make friends and that worked with Amanda.

Elizabeth, who needed a job, is persuaded to be the host of a new teatime cookery show, Supper at Six, which is soon a huge hit. But it’s not normal cookery show – Elizabeth’s recipes are for good, hearty and nutritious meals, incorporating all the food groups in the right proportions. She explains why foods should be cooked in a certain way – the chemistry of cooking, later inspiring a legion of kitchen cookery scientists! She develops a wonderful sign-off too:

‘Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself’

All the above is explained in the first handful of pages. But how did Elizabeth end up as a TV star? For that we need to go back ten years and the day she met Calvin Evans.

Calvin is the star of the Hastings Research Institute in California. A brilliant chemist who crossed the pond to study at Cambridge, where he rowed, mostly in the rain (which he hated). He’s also introverted, lonely and impatient, working on his own in his lab, and when Elizabeth Zott steals his spare beakers, you just know that they are made for each other – that theirs will be a meeting of minds, and later bodies, that is a match made in heaven.

Elizabeth had worked far harder than any man in chemistry at UCLA to become a masters candidate, when her academic hopes were derailed by her misogynistic predator of a professor. She had to leave before graduating, eventually finding a junior scientist position at Hastings, with another woman-hater of a boss who routinely published others’ findings as his own.

Elizabeth and Calvin are a golden couple. They never married, Elizabeth being firmly against it, instead moving in together. Very modern, but not approved of in many quarters, as will come back to haunt Elizabeth.

They adopt a stray dog which they call Six-thirty for the time he arrives – his name giving rise to many funny lines through misunderstandings in the novel. Garmus injects a little anthropomorphism too giving us the dog’s thoughts at some key moments – for he, like his owners, and later Mad, is super-intelligent, and thanks to Elizabeth’s tutelage comprehends a lot more words than the average pooch.

Although the overall tone of this novel is upbeat and heart-warming, it is not without drama and tragedy, which Elizabeth must deal with in addition to being a woman trying to forge a career in a male-dominated world prejudiced against her, whilst bringing up her daughter on her own. However, I won’t spoil what happens any further.

You can’t help but love Elizabeth though. Her determination to do things her own way and blazing a trail for early feminism does get her in trouble. Naively perhaps, compromise isn’t often in her lexicon, she needs proof to change and moderate her views. But once persuaded she still puts her own spin onto everything she does, as the benign Walter will discover time and time again. She is driven by what happened to her back at university.

Garmus is a great storyteller, and you never quite expect where things are going to go next in the plot, which despite a few longueurs, mostly zips along and turns unexpected corners into new situations demonstrating some super creativity on the author’s part. There is much humour alongside the drama and moments of heart-rending poignancy but also an ending which brings everything together in just the way you hope for (cf Schitt’s Creek). I was utterly charmed by this novel, and very much hope that Garmus will write more.  

P.S. I read a limited edition hardback, which, in addition to having sprayed edges and being signed and stamped, has the bonus short story of Elizabeth and Calvin’s first date – a lovely extra if you can get your hands on it.

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Annabel is a Co-Founder and editor of Shiny New Books.

Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry (Doubleday, 2022). 978-0857528124, 400 pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. A lovely review! I won this on NetGalley and was a bit anxious given the hype but really loved it. A good mixture of science and feminism, a fairy tale, really, and some wish-fulfilment but with a background of real pain and trauma.

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