Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: A review

 

Abiogenesis. It's a word that describes a theory that life arose from simplistic, non-life forms. The heroine of Lessons in Chemistry is an expert on the subject. 

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 

Comments

  1. I recently re-read "Silent Spring" and the way that Rachel Carson was treated because of her gender was shameful in the extreme. How many talented women didn't have her resolve and simply "went with the flow?" In some jurisdictions we seem to be going backwards.

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    1. It took enormous fortitude to be able to stand up to the misogyny of the '60s and, one might argue, it still does.

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    2. I fear you are right, Dorothy. I am mystified why some men seem to be intimidated by intelligent women. One of the great things about being married to Miriam is that she is intelligent, lively, witty and well able to make her case in a discussion. That makes a marriage interesting and I can't imagine why everyone wouldn't welcome that.

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  2. I see this book on Instagram EVERYWHERE and it made me so curious! I'm happy to actually read a review for it, and I'm even more curious now. Will add it to the TBR! I'm glad you liked it, Dorothy!

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    1. It was well written and its descriptions of the '60s were much as I remembered them, though I was (relatively) young at the time.

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  3. So glad you had a chance to try this one. I loved the last lines of your review LOL - so very true!

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    1. Sadly yes, I think they are true. Women today still face a lot of stupid barriers between them and their ambitions.

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  4. Women like my mom and my older relatives and my older friends really suffered from the sexism of their times. I don't think girls know what it was like for women long ago.

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    1. I'm quite sure that girls and young women today really don't understand the sexism that was endured and had to be overcome by their foremothers. They are the beneficiaries of those struggles, even though in truth the struggle goes on.

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  5. I'm looking forward to reading this one. I remember those 60s commercials, many of which were very sexist. Garmus seems to have tapped into this era & frustration in her novel in a clever way. I hope it will be good.

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    1. Her depiction of that period was much as I remember it.

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  6. One of my aunts (one I didn't know well) was a doctor who became an associate professor at a medical college. Both of her daughters became doctors, in turn. She died in 1976 at age 71 so she might have gone to medical school in the 1930's(?) I can't imagine what she went through, in medical school and beyond. This book would interest me.

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    1. I think you would find it interesting, Alana. It is very well written.

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