‘Lessons in Chemistry’ catalyzes science, cooking, and humor

A female scientist in the 1960s is forced to channel her talents into a cooking show in Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, “Lessons in Chemistry.”

"Lessons in Chemistry" by Bonnie Garmus, Doubleday, 400 pp.

“Cooking is serious science. In fact, it’s chemistry.” These words may not seem revolutionary today, but 60 years ago the suggestion that an element of women’s work could be approached with the rigor of a laboratory experiment was bold indeed.

The earnest speaker of this truth is 30-something scientist Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist of Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel “Lessons in Chemistry.” Elizabeth’s surprise platform? The set of 1961’s hit TV cooking show “Supper at Six,” of which she is the reluctant host. How Elizabeth lands in front of the camera, rather than under a fume hood, receives frank, satisfying treatment in this briskly paced, often funny, occasionally troubling, brew of a book. 

Garmus sets her story in Southern California in the 1950s and early ’60s – a time of shirtwaist dresses and cars without seatbelts, “back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun.” The era, Garmus makes abundantly clear, was no picnic. For all but the most powerful, it smacked of suffocating conformity, infuriating inequality, and dismal expectations. A young woman with a singular passion for science was, as Elizabeth might say, a fish out of H2O. 

The path from a chemist-who-cooks to a cook-expounding-chemistry begins in 1952 at Hastings Research Institute where Elizabeth works in a crowded lab. The situation is far from ideal. She scrounges for equipment, gets mistaken for a secretary, and suffers a steady stream of rancor from her jealous, sexist boss. 

Elizabeth once had higher professional hopes. Prior to Hastings she’d been days shy of earning her Ph.D. in chemistry, when an academic adviser sexually assaulted her, ending those dreams. Though brief, this is a difficult, graphic scene – one of several in the book. Garmus doesn’t shy from depicting the obstacles women faced (and still face today) in academic and workplace settings. Step carefully.

At Hastings, Elizabeth encounters the institute’s decorated darling, Calvin Evans. A fastidious, awkward genius, the young man sputters at Elizabeth’s no-nonsense, take-charge manner; their wary circling, unfiltered sparring, and eventual, wholehearted affection serve as one of the novel’s central “lessons in chemistry.”

Other characters in the book offer readers opportunities to check biases and feel empathy, and Garmus’ tale is awash with them. But Elizabeth – determined, practical, uncompromising – shines brightest. Her uniqueness extends beyond her intellectual drive; take, for example, her penchant for weaving chemistry terms and equipment into everyday life (coffee is brewed with flasks and Bunsen burners, “Pass the sodium chloride” is uttered at dinner). She brooks no nonsense in her relationships, speaking blunt truths and unvarnished opinions without a care for social niceties. She also raises her precocious daughter, Mad, with fearlessness, decrying gender norms. 

Most importantly, Elizabeth refuses to accept limitations. This refreshing quality pops up throughout the book, whether she’s learning how to row or encouraging a studio-audience member to pursue a career. It even applies to her homely hound Six-Thirty, a former bomb-sniffing dog now dedicated to the protection of his beloved owner and the expansion of his English comprehension (seriously). In a book bubbling with quirky, distinct characters, Six-Thirty is a standout delight. 

Multiple plot points keep the novel’s pace at a simmer. A mystery about Calvin’s past sweeps up their daughter, Mad, while the tension between Elizabeth’s financial need to host “Supper at Six” and her refusal to conform to the producers’ hidebound vision builds to a well-worth-it conclusion. 

Any gripes about “Lessons in Chemistry” are small. The novel’s tone – swinging between breezy, wry, and brutally raw – can feel muddled. Garmus’ commitment to portraying the near countless ways sexism trivialized and muzzled women may exhaust some readers. “Weathering is called weathering for a reason: it erodes,” she notes. It’s true, but so, too, is the novel’s insistence that we must persist to fuel change in the world.  

“Do not allow your talents to lie dormant, ladies,” urges Elizabeth to her legions of tuned-in “Supper at Six” fans. “Design your own future.” They are words she offers generously – and ultimately claims for herself.

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