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Tuesday, July 19, 2022


Hats off to Bonnie Garmus for crafting a book that is bubbling with life, wit and humour. (Review by Fiona de Goede)

I had heard a lot of hype prior to laying my hands on a copy of Lessons in Chemistry – and boy, was that hype justified! Add to the fact that this is the debut novel of the author, Bonnie Garmus, at the age of 65 and it immediately becomes more remarkable.

Set in the 1960’s in California, we are introduced to Elizabeth Zott, a scientist with a particular passion for research in abiogenesis. However, women in science are unheard of - other than, of course, Marie Curie. Females just did not feature in the scientific arena which was considered the sole domain of men. They could make the coffee and order the lab supplies and that’s as far as they could go.

Elizabeth does not receive the recognition she deserves nor does she get the support she is due to continue her research and the sexual harassment she endures is criminal.

She then meets Calvin Evans, a brilliant scientist at Hastings Research Institute and their attraction, although not “love at first sight” undeniably sets their chemistry in motion. Elizabeth and Calvin break all the conventional rules that are rigidly in place at the time – for one thing, they respect one another as work peers, something totally unheard of at the time.  Calvin, an avid rower, introduces Elizabeth to the sport. Rowing was not considered a female sport but this does not deter Elizabeth in the least. As with everything she does, she commits wholeheartedly to rowing despite the pain and agony she endures.

Unfortunately, life is not always as cut and dried as we plan and the outcome is not always what we had in mind. When, a few years later, Elizabeth finds herself a single mother with no job, she has to rethink her priorities and make a reluctant decision so as to make ends meet. She is given the opportunity to host a TV cooking show, Supper at Six, devised by the TV station to fill a “dead” time slot in the afternoon. To everyone’s surprise, her offbeat and unusual approach to cooking makes the show an instant success – combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride instead of vinegar and salt!

Whilst the story of Elizabeth Zott is the main focus in this book, there are other characters that play an important role in the telling of this unusual story. As already mentioned, Calvin Evans is an extremely integral component to Elizabeth’s life and his past eventually has a significant influence in the ultimate outcome.

Then we also meet Mad, Elizabeth’s very precocious and above-average intelligent daughter. There is the rather endearing mutt, Six Thirty, who crawls into one’s heart without one actually realising it! Harriet Sloane, the next-door neighbour; Miss Frask, the Head of Personnel at Hastings Research Institute; Walter Pine at KCTV, and Wakely, the minister … there are several more but I will not elaborate any further. Suffice to say that they add to the particular flavour of this rather delicious novel.

So many of the issues that females faced 60 years ago impacted on an entire generation of women. Thankfully, society is far more equal in the 21st century but the damage that was done will probably never be totally erased. This novel illustrates all the unfairness, bias and inequality in such a way that one wonders how it could have carried on for so long.

I enjoyed Lessons In Chemistry and loved the unconventional Elizabeth Zott. Hats off to Bonnie Garmus for crafting a book that is bubbling with life, wit and humour.

Lessons In Chemistry is published by Penguin RandomHouse. ISBN 978-0-8575-2813-1 - Fiona de Goede