An alchemy of dry wit, sharp satire and original premise: The Irish Times

Chemistry lessons

Chemistry lessons

Author: Bonnie Garmus

ISBN-13: 9780857528124

publisher: Double day

Rough price: £14.99

Chemistry is the study of the composition, structure, properties and change of matter, a definition that has surprising resonance with the writer’s day-to-day concerns. American author Bonnie Garmus combined the two in her debut novel Lessons in Chemistry, one of the great publishing success stories of 2022, spending five months in the top five bestseller charts. At first glance, Lessons in Chemistry appears to take a tried-and-true formula – a courageous heroine battles through adversity to stay true to herself – but the alchemy occurs with Garmus’ perfect blend of wit, sharp social satire, and highly original premise.

Set in Commons, California in 1961, “when women put on chemises and joined garden clubs and drove legions of kids in cars without seat belts without a second thought,” the book follows the trials of Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist and single mother to a precocious five-year-old, Madeline.

After being ousted from her abiogenesis research job at the all-male Hastings Institute, Elizabeth becomes the host of a television cooking show, in which her unorthodox methods (“combine a spoonful of acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) and her no-nonsense attitude sees her gain enormous popularity among housewives across America. In Elizabeth, they have someone who takes the job of housewife seriously, who recognizes how difficult it is: “A huge responsibility, the most underrated job in the world which, however, holds everything together… Food is the catalyst that unlocks our brains, it binds our families and determines our future”.

The dry narrative voice that switches from one perspective to another adds another comedic element, mostly biting in tone

The irony is that Elizabeth longs to return to the lab and her beloved research, that her growing popularity as a TV star depresses her and makes her feel like a sellout and a fraud. This is the kind of layered storytelling that makes Lessons in Chemistry so compelling. While undeniably set in a particular time—the sexist, patriarchal society of mid-century America—there is a timelessness to the book, as with all the best stories; one suspects that it will also be read in 10 or 20 years.

There are shades of other very successful novels of recent times: the bizarre and outspoken protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the spunky heroine of AJ Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird, or the hilarious despair in Nina Stibbe’s novels. It’s hard not to think of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn as well, even though Garmus asked Elizabeth to play him directly. Her character barely cracks a smile throughout the book. The humor is found in her candor and her cleverness, the way she outsmarts any man in the room. The dry narrative voice that switches from one perspective to another adds another comedic element, mostly biting in tone, as it points out the gender inequalities and injustices of the time.

Ep 553 Book Club: Chemistry Lessons – Bonnie Garmus

Garmus is a copywriter in her 60s who has worked for a diverse range of clients, primarily focusing on technology, medicine, and education. She is an open water swimmer, rower and mother of two daughters. From Seattle, she lives in London with her husband and her 99-year-old dog. The latter may have been the inspiration for another great success in his novel, the canine perspective of Six-Thirty, a failed sniffer dog who watches over Elizabeth and Madeline affectionately, even if he doesn’t quite understand their world: “The Human beings were strange, Six-Thirty thought, the way they constantly fought dirt in their above-ground world, but voluntarily buried themselves in it after death.”

Rooted in the real world, where life is unfair, Elizabeth Zott’s story offers lessons in chemistry, but also in survival

The pacing of Lessons in Chemistry is well handled, with Garmus leaving questions to be answered about Elizabeth’s employment situation, her own history, and the backstory of her beloved chemist colleague Calvin. Accurate dialogue and detective work from a brilliant child also keep things moving. The subplots with secondary characters tie right into the main story.

Each of these little actors gets their moment in the spotlight, from a jealous HR woman to a lonely television executive, to this precise description of Elizabeth’s neighbor and friend, the wise Harriet Sloane: “He was like a practical priest, someone to whom you can confess things – fears, hopes, mistakes – and expect in return, not a simpleton’s recipe for prayers and rosaries, or a psychologist’s standard ‘And how does that make you feel?’ runaround, but true wisdom. How to get on with the job at hand. How to survive.”

It is an apt summary of a book full of such insights. Rooted in the real world, where life is unfair, Elizabeth Zott’s story offers lessons in chemistry, but also in survival: “He studied her face fearfully, thinking it was probably the same as Joan of Arc had just before she lit the match.”

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