If I could suggest ONE book to read this year, it would be this funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately-affirming trip back to the Sixties. As I said in my last post here, it’s not the nostalgic decade of mop-haired lads from Liverpool, or flower children in San Francisco, or Woodstock. Instead it’s about a reality we’ve forgotten, where men earned more because they ‘had families to support’, and women were forced to leave their jobs if they had a baby. —Barb
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Your ability to change everything – including yourself – starts here
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.
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.
It’s a little depressing to read a historical novel about a period you lived through. Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry is set in the sixties, which I actually remember well. Her main character, Elizabeth Zott, is a single mother who has to deal with misogynistic professors/colleagues/bosses/and world in general.
When I was telling a younger friend about this book, she said she couldn’t understand how Elizabeth Zott could keep going, as any one of these horrible events would require years of intensive therapy. “No,” I told her. “Elizabeth just kept going. We all did.”
We had our shiny degrees, our short skirts, our conviction that we could just work a little harder than everyone else and we would win at the whole life thing. The too-warm shoulder squeeze, the pat on the back that lands further down, the jokes, the innuendos—they were parts of a math problem women did every day. Each day they went into one side of the equation, and if they didn’t equal the cost of complaining—losing your job, your career, your lover, your reputation—then you ignored them. You moved on. It was life then.
Elizabeth Zott does just that, as she explains to a journalist, even after she was fired so her supervisor could claim her research.
‘Why didn’t you tell the publication? he said. ‘Why didn’t you demand credit?’
Elizabeth looked at Roth as if he lived on some other planet.’I assume you’re kidding.’
Roth felt a flush of shame. Of course. Who was going to take a woman’s word over the male head of the entire department?
Elizabeth is a depressed single mother of a prodigy daughter. She’s lost her chance at a PhD, her career as a chemist, her lover, but she doesn’t wait around to do the math problem. Instead she turns her kitchen into a chemistry lab, and writes inspirational notes for her daughter’s lunch box.
Fuel for learning, Elizabeth Zott wrote on a small slip of paper before tucking it into her daughter’s lunch box. Then she paused, her pencil in midair, as if reconsidering. Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win, she wrote on another slip. Then she paused again, tapping her pencil against the table. It is not your imagination, she wrote on a third. Most people are awful.
Her daughter Madeline, already more worldly-wise at five years old than either of her parents would ever be—carefully extracts, reads, and saves each note before leaving for school.
Elizabeth sees chemistry as change, and change as life. So it’s easy to say she sees her cooking show as teaching her audience about chemistry and thus about life. But it’s really about the need to find your place in an unwelcoming world. Elizabeth needs to be a chemist. Her daughter needs to understand her dead father. Her dog, Six-Thirty, needs to atone for his shameful failures and to take care of Elizabeth. Her TV audience needs to learn about chemistry because it means they learn about life, change, and control, as reporter Roth from Life magazine learns.
During one of the advertising breaks he turned to the woman next to him. “If you don’t mind me asking,’ he said politely, showing his credentials, ‘what is it that you like about the show?’
‘Being taken seriously.’
‘Not the recipes?’
She looked back incredulously. ‘Sometimes I think,’ she said slowly, ‘that if a man were to spend a day being a woman in America, he wouldn’t make it past noon.’
I don’t know if I can convey my feelings about this book. As someone who lived through the misogyny and prejudice of the sixties (and later), I can understand how this isn’t in fact the central problem Elizabeth faces. She’s completely clear about who she is, and bemused by those who don’t get it. She’s a chemist. A scientist. She has important work to do. Sure, life has made her a mother, and (somehow) a television star. But the fundamental question is at what point do all the things you ignore or adjust to add up to more than you can afford to pay?
I went back and forth about how many stars to give to Lessons in Chemistry. First of all, there are all the geniuses. Elizabeth’s lover, Calvin Evans, is an orphan who makes Oliver Twist look like a lucky kid, a obsessive rower, and a “Nobel prize nominated” genius—or at least that’s what the cover blurb tells us. Since the list of nominees and/or runners up for the Nobel is never announced, that distinction is particularly meaningless.
Her child is also a genius, and even her dog has a bigger vocabulary than many humans. But all these geniuses have huge issues that put them on the spectrum when it comes to dealing with or even understanding the people around them. I’ve been fortunate to meet several people who are objectively acknowledged as genius level, and one of the things they have in common is that their prodigious intellectual gifts usually extend to a significant and deep understanding of other people (even if they then choose to ignore them).
But what keeps bringing me back to five stars (and wishing I had more to give) is that sense of deja vu. I had to live through those times. I recognize Elizabeth and what she had to go through. And I rooted for her all the way. So I can’t recommend Lessons in Chemistry highly enough, or give it all the stars it deserves, especially as we seem doomed to repeat the mistakes of the lessons we haven’t yet fully learned.
I’m telling everyone I know to read this book. It shows how far we’ve come. And how far we haven’t.