Sometimes you just get a feeling about a book. That you know it’s going be a new favourite even before you’ve opened it. I felt like that about Lessons in Chemistry. I requested it on NetGalley because it sounded incredible. I pre-ordered a hardback copy before I’d even started reading the ARC. I was so confident that I’d love it enough to want to own a copy. But I’ve been fooled before. Could this possibly be as good as everyone sad? As good as it sounded? We’d have to see.
We like to think we’ve come a long way since the 60s but have we? In terms of gender politics, we probably haven’t moved on as far as we think. Yes, women have more opportunities with regard to the workplace and education. However, it’s still not a great time to be a woman. Especially an opinionated woman. Instead of being celebrated for her self-confidence, an assertive woman is still regularly shot-down. She is bitchy or over-emotional rather than authoritative.
Elizabeth Zott is an opinionated woman. She knows what she wants and will do whatever it takes to get it. Unfortunately, what she wants is to be a chemist in 1960s America. That’s no mean feat even before you take into account her tenacity. Which is one of the reasons why Elizabeth Zott has ended up hosting an afternoon cooking show. Admittedly, a cooking show that feels more like a science show but a cooking show nonetheless. A very popular cooking show. As well as teaching them how to cook, Elizabeth is giving housewives across America the confidence they need to change their lives. Of course, not everyone is happy about that.
Although I was absolutely ecstatic about that. I absolutely adored this book from the very beginning. It not only captures the era but it’s a feminist book that doesn’t rely on tired dystopian tropes to get its message across. Instead, it presents several themes that are just as relevant today as they ever were and uses the historical setting to show how outdated they are. That’s not to say this is a preachy book. Everything is handled so carefully and there is plenty of fun here. Elizabeth might be a serious woman but she is also very funny. I loved spending time with her.
And it’s not just Elizabeth. I’m normally a bit iffy on multiple perspective novels but this pulls it off in such an effortless way. The narrative switches perspective between the different characters not only between chapters but in the middle of them. It has the feel of a film or television series. Events are retold from different characters’ viewpoints so that the full story builds up slowly. The mystery is allowed to unravel before our eyes without seeming as though Bonnie Garmus is dragging it out. It’s incredible. And there are so many layers to this story.
Before her television work, Elizabeth had a job in a lab. She never really fit in and her coworkers tended to find her odd, irritating and cold. They don’t believe she has any talent as a scientist and assume she slept her way into the job. It doesn’t matter that Elizabeth is brilliant at her job and puts many of her male colleagues to shame, she is always undermined by the men around her. Until she meets Calvin Evans. Evans is another brilliant scientist who, like Elizabeth, doesn’t have many fans at work. After a rocky start, the pair fall in love. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always have a happy ending and Elizabeth finds herself an unwed, single mother.
This is when the novel becomes part mystery novel. Elizabeth’s daughter sets out to find more about her family. She looks to uncover what she can about Calvin but her mother doesn’t have much information herself. As the novel goes on, the different storylines all converge to bring about a highly satisfying ending. I don’t normally cry at books but I was weeping tears of joy by the end. Considering I’d spent so much of the novel full of rage by the very realistic displays of misogyny, it was a lovely way to finish. <em>Lessons in Chemistry</em> is a heartwarming, funny, sad, clever, original novel. The characters were so well written and the dialogue was sharp and natural. This is an amazing debut and an amazing novel in general. Already one of my top books of the year. It was an absolute pleasure to read and I can’t wait to revisit it.