Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: A review
Her name is Elizabeth Zott and she is a scientist. She is a female scientist who has the misfortune to be practicing her profession in the 1960s, a most unenlightened decade when men were men and women were mostly decorative. An accomplished woman scientist was definitely an anomaly to which the world scarcely knew how to react.
She had the respect and the love of her fellow scientist, Calvin Evans. Calvin was a kindred spirit on every level. He was an expert rower and that was his passion outside of work. It was a passion that Elizabeth shared. Soon, she became another passion of his and together they made a daughter, Madeline. But an unfortunate accident took Calvin from Elizabeth and from his unborn daughter.
Elizabeth had little use for a kitchen and so she converted hers into something for which she did have a use. It became a lab complete with all the essentials even including a centrifuge. She had lost her job essentially due to misogyny because she wouldn't play the role that her sexist supervisor demanded of her and so she needed a lab of her very own from which she couldn't be ejected. Voila! Kitchen becomes lab.
Then, through a series of events, Elizabeth unexpectedly finds herself the host of a television cooking show called "Supper at Six." She needs a way to support herself and her daughter and the show provides that way. But she's not going to play the cutesy, aproned, smiling cook reading her cue cards. She's going to do it her own way, the scientific way. She undertakes her new role with the utmost seriousness, as a scientist in the kitchen and she seeks to empower the women who watch her show. While it may have been a watered-down version of her dreams, she chose to treat her forays in the kitchen as scientific experiments in molecular gastronomy. And women responded to having their work taken seriously. The show was a hit.
Bonnie Garmus delivers her story in a lighthearted manner, but underlying it is the frustration of all those women who longed to be taken seriously while engaging in useful careers in the 1960s. The sexism of the period was stifling and women had few options to pursue their dreams if those dreams involved a career in science or in anything other than secretarial work. It took a woman with determination and a bit of luck to overcome the barriers that society placed between them and the fulfillment of their ambitions. In Elizabeth Zott, Garmus has given us a character who had what it took, but the world is poorer for all those women who didn't have that bit of luck and whose desires for meaningful work were thwarted.
Those of us of a certain age will remember a long-ago television commercial for a "woman's" cigarette called Virginia Slims, the tag line of which was, "You've come a long way, baby!" Reading Garmus' book, I was reminded that we have indeed come a long way since the '60s, but, oh, we still have so far to go!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars