Published: 5 April 2022
Author: Bonnie Garmus
Published by: Doubleday
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 400 pages
Reading dates: 4-9 April 2022
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.
As Lessons in Chemistry starts it is November 1961 and we hear from young Madeline Zott, who observes her mother Elizabeth Zott, preparing her a nutritious lunch, leaving her notes to find in her lunchbox at school, before heading to work at the television studio where is the star of a cookery programme called Supper at Six. She observes that her mother is depressed.
We then go back 10 years to Hasting Research Institute where Calvin Evans, the brilliant chemist works. Also working there but fighting desperately to be recognised as a chemist in her own right, is Elizabeth Zott who one day borrows some beakers from Calvin and they manage to annoy each other! Before long they start a relationship, much to everyone’s surprise – they assume Elizabeth is with Calvin so she can further her career but they are in love. Elizabeth develops a love of rowing which is Calvin’s favourite sport, they have endless discussions about their research and they adopt a dog called Six-Thirty living happily together.
When Elizabeth finds herself a single mother, and fired from her job, she reluctantly becomes a cookery show presenter – but soon throws the rule book out of the window, choosing to make the set how she wants it, wearing the clothes she wants (including trousers!) and introducing aspects of chemistry into the show which a audience loves and she soon becomes a huge star.
I adored this book. From the first glorious page to the last, I fell in love with all the characters (well not quite all of them – some of them made me furious!) Elizabeth is a woman who is fighting every barrier put in her way. Women in the 1950s and 1960s aren’t supposed to work, much less be a scientist. She is extraordinarily clever – and refuses to conform to societies rules. She is abused verbally and physically, No-one is on her side. Even the women don’t accept that she can be who she wants to be.
The book is written with humour and some of Elizabeth’s come-backs to things that happen to her are amazing and made me want to punch my first in the air and cheer! Often she still doesn’t get the outcome she wants but I love her tenacity. She has to fight everyone, so when she meets some people who are on her side it is lovely and these supporting characters are equally wonderful.
A wonderful book, funny and well-conceived, Lessons in Chemistry is definitely in my top 10 and is currently a contender for the top spot! This is a stunning unforgettable debut – I truly cannot fault it. It will make you furious but also warm your heart. I’ve treated myself to the Waterstones special edition with the sprayed edges – it really is a beauty!
Thanks to Alison Barrow for sending me a proof.
About the author
Bonnie Garmus is a copywriter and creative director who has worked for a wide range of clients, in the US and abroad, focusing primarily on technology, medicine, and education. She’s an open water swimmer, a rower, and mother to two pretty amazing daughters. Most recently from Seattle, she currently lives in London with her husband and her dog, 99.