I loved this novel about a strong, opinionated woman in the early 1960s who is a chemist, a single mother, and the star of a cooking television show. This sort of novel could easily become trite but it never did. Elizabeth Zott has to deal with sexism, harassment, and assault, as she navigates the world of science and television.
This book is generating strong opinions, both positive and negative, on Goodreads. You will either love or hate Elizabeth and her daughter Mad, there isn’t a lot of in-between. Zott has traits that are like those on the spectrum, though nothing would be diagnosed as such at this time. She’s both incredibly smart and sometimes clueless – something I could relate to and didn’t find off-putting. Though she isn’t completely clueless about societal norms, it’s more that she chooses not to bend to them. Her stubbornness could be frustrating at times, but Garmus gives her good reasons for making the choices she does, like not getting married when she feels she would lose her identity, or accepting her role on a cooking show because she needs to support her family. Her outspokenness has consequences, but it also inspires those around her.
This book is marketed as being hilarious, but I’d call it clever much more than funny, and the cutesy cover does a disservice to the depth and seriousness of this story. There are some brutal moments.
A strength of this book is that Garmus builds really interesting supporting characters over the course of the story. It isn’t just Elizabeth against the world – she’s helped along the way by her first love, by a supportive TV producer/friend, a questioning minister and a friendly neighbor – in addition to her brilliant daughter and her dog, Six-Thirty (I appreciated that parts of the story were told from the dog’s perspective).
I saw a review on Goodreads that complained that all the male characters except one were violent and sexist. They must not have read the same book I did. None of her characters are perfect, and the men struggle with their perceptions of women, but every man in this book isn’t a rapist or harasser – just some of them. And true to life, some women are as horrible to her as the men are, but Garmus provides room for each character to grow and see things in a different way.
I can’t say I loved the amount of time Garmus spent on rowing. I listened to an interview with Garmus and she wrote about it so much because she herself is a rower (though not a chemist or a chef). But I do appreciate that athleticism is one way for women to grow beyond the narrow boxes society places them in – and I did find it interesting to to think about the ways rowers have to work as one and put petty differences aside in order to excel.
The book is realistic in many ways (sadly), but this author isn’t trying to be realistic in all aspects. In addition to Zott’s hyper-intelligent dog who can sniff out bombs and knows thousands of words, I enjoyed the way the housewives watching Zott’s show absorb her love of chemistry, and then apply complex concepts of chemistry to their daily lives. Do I think a cooking show could inspire all that? Maybe not, but it’s part of the humor of this book.
I don’t love books about super-precocious children, though I did appreciate Mad’s desire to learn about her own family history. I also liked the way Garmus developed the relationship between mother and daughter, and Mad’s own feelings of guilt about how some of her actions impact her mother.
I loved the themes of women’s strength and empowerment that run throughout this novel, which was also a great audiobook. Every time someone tells Zott she’s not a “normal” woman, she counters that she’s expressing the needs that all women have. This is an impressive debut novel, though as Garmus points out in an interview, she’s been writing her entire life.
This book was recommended by Modern Mrs. Darcy.