Monday, May 23, 2022

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant chemist who, perhaps unfortunately, is also beautiful.

Once a research chemist, Elizabeth Zott was a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who was not average and never would be.

The main character in Bonnie Garmus’ delightful 2022 novel, Lessons in Chemistry is as stubborn as she is brilliant. She refuses to be seen as simply an extension of her Nobel Prize nominated boyfriend whom she lives with but refuses to marry. Her hiring by a scientific think-tank is already viewed by the male workforce as due to the influence of her famous boyfriend. And she realizes that no matter how brilliant her work is, she will be seen as riding the coat-tails of Calvin Evans.

Elizabeth meets Calvin when he discovers her stealing beakers from his lab, which she explains is due to a lack of funding for her research. 

“The problem, Calvin,” she asserted, “is that half the population is being wasted. It’s not just that i can’t get the supplies I need to complete my work, it’s that women can’t get the education they need to do what they’re meant to do. And even if they do attend college, it will never be in a place like Cambridge. Which means they won’t be offered the same opportunities nor afforded the same respect. They’ll start at the bottom and stay there. Don’t even get me started on pay. And all because they didn’t attend a school that wouldn’t admit them in the first place.”

The action in this novel takes place in the 60s, but Garmus thinks not much has changed since then.

Garmus creates some really funny and delightful characters including a dog who understands a very large number of words and a precocious daughter “who could hum a Bach concerto but couldn’t tie her own shoes; who could explain the earth’s rotation but stumbled at tac-tac-toe.”

The plot of the novel is less important than the commentary on science and society that Garmus provides. Briefly put, Calvin dies, and Elizabeth is fired from the research institute soon after his death. Out of a job and nearly broke, she has little to do but work on her already very accomplished cooking skills. Cooking she insists is like chemistry, in fact it is chemistry at the practical level. Eventually in this whacky story, Elizabeth becomes the reluctant star of a cooking show, Supper at Six. Unexpectedly, the show is a huge hit, and she soon has a devoted following. Between recipes, Elizabeth provides running commentary on the absurd exclusion of women from science, making them stay at home and make babies in a form of legalized slavery.

The all-male workforce at the institute sees Elizabeth’s research project as unimportant and bound to go nowhere, and after she is fired, her work is simply stolen by one of her male colleagues. Only Calvin recognizes her brilliance, and he is no longer there to defend her. 

Darwin had long ago proposed that life sprang from a single-celled bacterium, which then went on to diversify into a complex planet of people, plants, and animals. Zott? She was like a bloodhound on the trail of where that first cell had come from. In other words , she was out to solve one of the greatest chemical mysteries of all time, and if her findings continued apace, there was no question she would do just that.

As her fame blossoms as cooking-show host, Elizabeth has only one real friend, Harriet, whom Elizabeth has hired as her assistant. They agree on most things, but not on one essential point. 

According to Harriet, men were a world apart from women. They required coddling, they had fragile egos, they couldn’t allow a woman intelligence or skill if it exceeded their own. “Harriet that’s ridiculous,” Elizabeth had argued. “Men and women are both human beings. And as humans, we’re by-products of our upbringings, victims of our lackluster educational system, and choosers of our behaviors.  In short, the reduction of women to something LESS than men, and the elevation of men to something MORE than women, is not biological: it’s cultural.

I did not choose this book for its political significance, but simply because it sounded delightful and it is. Bonnie Garmus has worked widely in the fields of technology, medicine and education, and she shows off her considerable talents in this wonderful comedic novel. Like her zany character Elizabeth, Bonnie decides, “Don’t work the system. Outsmart it.”

If you as a reader sometimes read a book just for the delight of reading it, this is a book for you, easily the funniest and most clever book I have read this year.

1 comment:

  1. The story about Elizabeth is full of ups and downs of life. Private tutor St. Augustine A good novel indeed.