Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

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.

  11 comments for “Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

  1. July 20, 2022 at 5:24 pm

    Good review. I couldn’t deal with the violence. I agree that it is mis-marketed as hilarious. It’s a serious book.

  2. July 23, 2022 at 9:13 am

    It is always good to know when covers mis-represent the contents, as well as your takes on other reviews. I will know not to expect a light comic read with this one!

    • July 23, 2022 at 2:00 pm

      I hate the way fiction about women is marketed! I appreciated this quote by the NY Times’ review: “Lessons in Chemistry”… might end up shelved in that maddeningly named section “Women’s Fiction,” which needs to go the way of the girdle. To file Elizabeth Zott among the pink razors of the book world is to miss the sharpness of Garmus’s message.”

      • July 23, 2022 at 2:17 pm

        How about “Fiction for Human Beings”? That would be a useful category.

  3. July 23, 2022 at 11:29 am

    Yes, I found it clever rather than hilarious – I sort of saw it as a fairy tale, as some of the stuff was depressingly realistic but the plot and the ways around those things were more wish-fulfilment. Plus a dog narrating. But I really enjoyed it (I did find the brutal bits a little jarring but one in particular was done well and almost blurred and the other two were justified (wish-fulfilment again, I feel!).

    • July 24, 2022 at 8:49 am

      I agree, it’s a strange mix of being really dark and realistic and then absurdly optimistic. The blend of both worked for me because it was well-written and I loved the characters.

  4. lawkh
    July 28, 2022 at 9:34 am

    Very good ☺️

  5. July 31, 2022 at 12:57 pm

    I’m on the fence–some things about it are very appealing and others not so much. I will probably listen to it, as I am on the wait list at the library for the audio. I thought you provided a very balanced review and appreciate that very much.

  6. August 13, 2022 at 10:33 am

    Yeah I’m in the camp who loved the book. Like you, I thought it was clever and funny. I liked Elizabeth, the dog, and the other characters. I thought overall it has a great message of equality and empowering those without it. I didn’t think it was overly harsh toward men (like Calvin or Walter Pine) nor did I think it was excessive about the rowing. It had a great interesting blend that keep me going. I listened to it on audio.

  7. September 16, 2022 at 11:38 pm

    I had this book out from the library but ended up returning it unread.

    Thanks for sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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