“Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus
review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel Lessons in Chemistry showcases a sucker punch narrative laced with social commentary. With the ever changing dynamic for women’s roles and perceptions in society, Garmus looks back at where they’ve been. In the 1960s, Elizabeth Zott is an aspiring scientist, clawing her way through a man’s discipline, fending off sexual advances and outright assaults, all in an attempt to obtain a PhD in chemistry. After the college chemistry department denies her admission, Elizabeth settles for a lackluster lab job, allowed the freedom to research and explore abiogenesis, while being overlooked for promotion because of her gender. When Elizabeth falls in love and intellectual bliss with the star scientist at the corporation, his access to power provides an opening for Elizabeth. After a stunning turn of events, Elizabeth must navigate motherhood, career changes, and the status quo that relegates strong, focused women to the margins.
I was surprised that this compelling narrative was Garmus’ first. She writes with a seasoned flair, weaving Zott’s biting wit alongside the reality for working women in the mid-century. The life advice mantras pepper the story, such as: “Courage is the root of change—and change is what we’re chemically designed to do.” Zott wants only to be taken seriously, for her projects to be funded as well as the men with little intellect or instinct. Garmus leans on intuitive female characters throughout the book, including a neighbor trapped in a marriage well past its due date and Elizabeth’s daughter Madeline – a ferocious reader with a mother whose approach to parenting is well ahead of its time. Garmus reminds us of the untold stories, the women who spent so much time fighting for equality and respect that it’s amazing they were able to accomplish anything. She reminds us that though we’ve come a long way, the fight must continue. Obtaining rights and respect does not mean keeping them.
I couldn’t help smiling and laughing throughout this book. It was the delightful escapism I so adore in novels that surprised me with their depth. Elizabeth Zott is a character to remember, a scientist who defies the emotional stereotype and proves women are just as capable, and often more likely to succeed because of what they have to overcome just to get to the starting line. Garmus’s name is on my author watch list. I am so looking forward to her next novel.
“People will always yearn for a simple solution to their complicated problems. It’s a lot easier to have faith in something you can’t see, can’t touch, can’t explain, and can’t change, rather than to have faith in something you actually can.”