Lessons In Chemistry - Exceptional Debut
Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Genre: Women's Fiction, General Fiction
Published March 2022; 386 pages
A Buddy Read for December, Lessons in Chemistry was the result of a LONG wait from the library, but once again we got our copies within a couple days of each other. It's great having someone to call the minute you finish a book to say either "WOW - you need to read this", OR "I just read the most .... (confusing, terrible, fill-in-the-blank) book ever". My sister Donna is that person!
First Sentence: "Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbelt-less cars without giving it a second thought; back before anyone knew there'd even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over." *** No, not all the sentences are this long!
Delightfully well written debut novel about a seemingly unlikeable, intractable, stubborn, woman who becomes endearing, insightful, and totally a woman to champion as the story progresses. Set in the 1960s (but feels like it could be present day) when women wanting a career outside the home instead of children and a picket fence was very unusual, Elizabeth tries to forge her own way against incredible odds, misogynist men, and a culture that didn't value women for their intelligence.
"They [men] either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn't understand why they couldn't just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street ....."
Elizabeth is smart. Elizabeth is a chemist. Elizabeth is an independent thinker. Elizabeth has chosen a field dominated by men. Men who don't want to recognize her intelligence. Except one. Calvin. Also smart, he's a Nobel prize nominated chemist with a penchant for holding grudges. When the two meet - chemistry ignites. Love blooms, filled with respect and admiration for one another. You'd be hard pressed to find a more simpatico couple.
"I fell in love with Calvin because he was intelligent and kind, but also because he was the very first man to take me seriously. Imagine if all men took women seriously. Education would change. The workforce would revolutionize. Marriage counselors would go out of business."
The couple finds a stray dog and name him Six Thirty (great name, right?) and the dog is a great support character. Also smart. Time passes and Elizabeth finds herself pregnant and unemployed. The job offered to her is a half hour TV cooking show - the show creators want a pretty woman to sell the products, and be the picture of the "little woman". That's NOT Elizabeth's vision. And, as usual, she does it her own way. She's actually an excellent cook because, well, it's all just chemistry. And that's how she runs her cooking show - like a chemistry class.
As Elizabeth ostensibly teaches new recipes, she's also teaching and encouraging women to be more than just a wife and mother - to go back to school, to live up to their potential. All this is done is a very dry, forthright manner, because to her, it's just logical.
Based on the cover and title alone, I was hesitant to pick up Lessons in Chemistry. I'm not a romance reader and this cover said "romance" to me. While there is a bit of romance, it's not "sweet". It's sweet that these two unlikely characters would fall for each other, but neither of them is a sweet person. I loved the romance.
The support characters are delightful. The misogynists are stereotypically awful - I just wanted to smack them. The catty women are appropriately represented (I wanted to smack them too!). The loveable oddball dog is a great touch.....learning hundreds of words and sharing his insightful thoughts now and then. Then, there's Mad. Elizabeth's daughter is extremely (a little unbelievably) precocious, and just like her mom. That makes for some fun moments.
As I reflect on the story, it "feels" lighthearted but the underpinnings are totally serious and the themes are thought provoking. I found it well written with just a touch of humor, a lot of heart, and a real feel for how repressed, overlooked, and under-valued women felt and feel. A good feminist treatise, this book is a treat to read. I think it would be an entertaining book club read with LOTS of hot button topics to discuss. Let me know if your book club takes it on. Content warnings.
Works for COYER challenge: 25/54 (need 27 to 'succeed')