Debut novelist, Bonnie Garmus’s LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY is set in the early 1960’s – a period not particularly friendly or advantageous for women in the workplace. Protagonist Elizabeth Zott is the only female chemist on an all-male team at Hastings Research Lab. Hastings is not an equal-opportunity employer and her boss would rather relegate her to the secretarial pool or have her demoted to a lab tech, but first, he needs to learn more about her research.
There is one fellow scientist on staff who recognizes Elizabeth’s immense intelligence — her soul-supporter and lover, Calvin Evans. Everyone at Hastings is jealous of the unique bond between them and for a time everything seems to be going Elizabeth’s way. And then suddenly, nothing is going her way. She’s a single mother without a job.
Serendipitously, she is invited to host a cooking show on television. But like all things Elizabeth — it’s no ordinary cooking show – and women are eating it up because for the first time, no one is talking down to them. “Combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride,” she advises the women. Elizabeth is not just teaching them to cook – she’s teaching them to push the boundaries of convention, shake off the shackles of domesticity, and learn to understand the science behind cooking. It’s easily within their grasp. As she teaches them about chemical bonds (ionic, covalent, and hydrogen) she’s not just teaching them how to make their cakes rise – she’s teaching them how to rise up. Her fans are taking notes, and the men, especially the executive producer at KCTV, don’t like it. When he tries to assert his authority by sexually assaulting her in his office, Zott doesn’t miss a beat when he asks, “Who the hell do you think you are?” She calmly withdraws a freshly sharpened fourteen-inch chef’s knife from her purse and answers, “I’m Elizabeth Zott.” But he never hears her answer because he faints dead away.
Bonnie Garmus has created characters that mock convention. Elizabeth Zott defies authority, not on principal, but on practicality. She sees the world through safety goggles while her male counterparts just wish she’d put on the rose-colored glasses, form-fitting Donna-Reed dress, and sell the canned soup on Supper at Six. But everything in Elizabeth’s world boils down to science – including making her coffee at home with a Bunsen burner and turning her home kitchen into a lab. You’ll fall in love with her dog, Six-Thirty, one of the most astute and intelligent four-legged narrators in fiction today; Mad, her precocious daughter, who reads Nabokov at the age of five, and interrupts show and tell to ask her kindergarten teacher how she can join the Freedom Fighters in Nashville; and her friend and neighbor Harriet, whom after watching Elizabeth stand up to injustice, finds the courage to leave her alcoholic and abusive husband.
LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY was bought by Doubleday in a 16-bid auction, and production is in the works for an Apple TV series. If you love rooting for the underdog, are a defender of equal opportunity, and enjoy a laughable, highly readable, intelligent story to boot, you should run to your nearest bookstore for LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY. I highly recommend it for fans of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE and fans of literary fiction with strong female characters.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interview with Bonnie Garmus on April 28 on Superior Reads at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio, 9.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota or on the web at http://www.wtip.org.