Title: Lessons in Chemistry
Author: Bonnie Garmus
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Commons, California (United States)
Characters: Elizabeth Zott, Calvin Evans, Mad Evans
First Publication: 2022
Book Summary: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
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 as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes 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.
Laugh-out-loud funny, shrewdly observant, and studded with a dazzling cast of supporting characters, Lessons in Chemistry is as original and vibrant as its protagonist.
Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus tells the story of one woman’s journey pursuing her dreams in 1960s America, when society severely limiting the roles available to women. Published in 2022, this debut novel instantly became a sensation for its vivid characters, gripping plot, and fascinating blend of science and social commentary. At just over 300 pages, Lessons in Chemistry pulls readers deeply into the world of its protagonist Elizabeth Zott and keeps them enthralled until the very last page.
The story is set in Northern California in 1960. We meet Elizabeth as a single mother working as a assistant at a gas station, trying to support her young son Calvin despite having a PhD in chemistry. With few good job opportunities available to a woman in her position at the time, she reluctantly accepts a role hosting a local TV cooking show. However, Elizabeth has grander ambitions, and soon revolutionizes the program by incorporating fun chemistry experiments and lessons into her demonstrations.
“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.”
Through this unexpected new venue, Elizabeth is finally able to pursue her passion and share her knowledge of science with viewers. Her lively on-air manner and incorporation of real chemistry shakes up the traditionally feminine constraints of cooking shows. Elizabeth’s journey navigating society’s expectations while staying true to her calling makes for an utterly captivating protagonist. Readers can’t help but root for her success against the pervasive sexism that tries to hold her back.
Garmus populates the novel with a rich supporting cast with realistic flaws that bring 1960s California vibrantly to life. From Elizabeth’s charismatic but troubled young son Calvin to her collection of quirky coworkers, every character feels deeply human. Scenes between Elizabeth and Calvin in particular brim with genuine raw emotion that lingers with the reader. Meanwhile, the inclusion of historical figures like scientist Linus Pauling lend an aura of verisimilitude to the setting.
“Because while musical prodigies are always celebrated, early readers aren’t. And that’s because early readers are only good at something others will eventually be good at, too. So being first isn’t special – it’s just annoying.”
Most impressive is Garmus’ ability to weave factual chemistry content seamlessly into the storytelling. As Elizabeth demonstrate concepts like exothermic and endothermic reactions on the show, lay readers gain a fundamental understanding of chemistry. Detailed explanations of scientific processes never feel infodumpy but rather deepen the readers’ appreciation for Elizabeth’s expertise and passion. Her on-air experiments from extracting vanilla from beans to separating eggs fascinate with their blend of entertainment and education.
The period details are equally rich, conveying daily challenges of gender norms, home life and workplace that shaped American society in the 1960s. Yet many struggles Elizabeth faces, from being maternally punished for her ambitions to facing different standards as a working mother, still unfortunately echo today. Striking this balance of specificity in time yet universality in themes is a testament to Garmus’ nuanced storytelling prowess.
“Whenever you feel afraid, just remember. Courage is the root of change – and change is what we’re chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge. No more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others’ opinions of what you can and cannot achieve. And no more allowing anyone to pigeonhole you into useless categories of sex, race, economic status, and religion. Do not allow your talents to lie dormant, ladies. Design your own future. When you go home today, ask yourself what YOU will change. And then get started.”
As the plot races toward its climax, Garmus ratchets up the drama through Elizabeth’s unconventional personal life choices that ruffle uptight 1960s sensibilities. Conflict with disapproving neighbors, clashes with the TV station’s director and family turmoil all propel the page-turning intrigue. Yet through it all, Elizabeth’s unwavering spirit and deep caring for her son sustain hope that a more fair future may lie ahead. The satisfying resolution brings a sense of optimism without wrapping everything up too neatly.
Lessons in Chemistry has garnered widespread praise for good reason. Bonnie Garmus demonstrates a rare gift for crafting immersive historical fiction that educates as it entertains. While set over half a century ago, the book tackles issues of gender barriers, work-life balance and the social risks of defying expectations that feel startlingly fresh. With its charm, humor, well-drawn characters and seamless blending of science and cultural commentary, it will appeal to a wide audience. This debut announces Garmus as an author to watch, and readers will eagerly anticipate whatever she produces next. For a vibrant, moving and thought-provoking read, Lessons in Chemistry earns the highest recommendation.
“Some things needed to stay in the past because the past was the only place they made sense.”
In conclusion, Bonnie Garmus has crafted an unforgettable work of historical fiction in Lessons in Chemistry. Not only does this debut novel tell a gripping human story of one woman’s perseverance against the cultural constraints of her time, it does so while educating readers on real scientific principles. Through vivid characters and period details, Garmus transports readers to 1960s California, bringing the era’s challenges and opportunities to bright life. But perhaps most impressively, the book taps into issues of gender roles, work-life balance and nonconformity that maintain relevance today. Lessons in Chemistry deserves its wide acclaim for outstanding storytelling that both entertains and leaves readers with new insights long after the last page. Bonnie Garmus has established herself as an author to eagerly anticipate in the years to come.
I’m very excited about the upcoming series adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry, which is set to premiere on Apple TV+ on October 13th. Starring Oscar winner Brie Larson as the brilliant scientist Elizabeth Zott, the 1960s-set show will follow her journey fighting for a place in a male-dominated field under the direction of Sarah Adina Smith. Larson leads a stellar cast that includes Lewis Pullman, Aja Naomi King, Stephanie Koenig, Patrick Walker, Thomas Mann, Kevin Sussman, and Beau Bridges. As a fan of Bonnie Garmus’ bestselling and well-written book about a woman refusing to give up on her dreams, I’m confident that the talented cast and crew, including executive producers Larson, Sarah Polley, Andrea Arnold, and Lee Eisenberg, will do it justice in bringing this heartwarming story to life on screen. Audiences are surely in for a treat with this promising adaptation.