I don’t know about you, but when I hear great things about a book and read the fulsome praise bestowed upon it, I become not only a little bit reluctant to read it lest it fail to live up to expectations, but incredibly anxious for the author. I ambivalently picked up Lessons in Chemistry yet, by the time I’d read the first page, relaxed. It was more than evident that this book was not only going to meet my expectations, but exceed them.
The story of the magnificently named and highly unconventional (for the era – late fifties and early sixties) Elizabeth Zott, is one of the most engaging, fiercely intelligent, funny, observant and anger-inducing, while also simultaneously squeezing the heart, books I have read in a long time. The prose is simply sublime.
Born into a time where women should know their place and refrain from offering opinions, Elizabeth refuses to accept that people, let alone women, can be “average” and contests the very notion of what is “normal.” A chemist by passion and profession, she is also at the whim of patriarchal forces who refuse to see beyond her evident beauty to the wily, razor-sharp brain and wit beneath.
Due to a series of circumstances (and I really don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling what is such a cracker of a plot and narrative arc, let alone character development), Elizabeth finds herself helming a cooking show, Supper at Six. Refusing to concede to the male producers’ ideas of how a female host should comport herself, Elizabeth is of the firm conviction that cooking IS science; furthermore, it’s a matter of basic chemistry. Thus, while teaching viewers to cook, she also instils in them not only the fundamental principles of chemistry, but a series of life-lessons. After all, what is chemistry but the deliberate combination of elements in such a way that they bring about change? If society cannot change, then women must, and in doing so, change society.
From an underestimated and undervalued scientist, struggling against dreadful inequality and inequity, personal obstacles and emotional upheavals, misunderstandings and great bonds broken, Elizabeth’s star slowly rises and yet, as it does, her happiness declines. Never having reconciled her past or that of her soul-mate’s, both begin to catch up with her in unexpected ways. Soon she has to make a decision that will impact not only her life, but that of those she loves most in the world.
I have to tell you, my husband started reading this book before me (on my recommendation – it was also my way of testing the waters before I started it! I know…coward!). He fell in love with the story, the wondrous, warm voice and Elizabeth from the get-go (so did I). But, he also became so furious at the injustices meted out to her, the hurdles deliberately put in her path, the brazen lies, complicity of those who should be allies and so on, and frustrated at the appalling treatment of her and other women generally by men and society at the time. He warned me I’d be triggered (he certainly was).
Strangely, I wasn’t triggered, not in the way he expected. I was, as I read and read and sighed and sighed, merely disappointed. What Elizabeth went through in the late 1950s and early 1960s, myself and countless other women have done for centuries. Even twenty years after Elizabeth entered the workforce, I was – like all my female peers – being judged and valued (or not) by the same kind of criteria. Women still are today. As a writer of historical fiction and someone who researches history constantly, it’s evident women have been ever since Eve bit the apple and our entire sex was made to pay for her chutzpah. Who would have thought that a medieval woman would be experiencing the same kind of bigotry, silencing and oppression a woman in the 1960s did – with very little difference? Yet, this is what happens – within context, of course.
Nevertheless, I didn’t find this book depressing – and believe me, there are some truly horrendous moments. On the contrary, it’s testimony to Garmus’s fantastic style and her sensational supporting characters (there is even the most adorable dog who is given a voice – the wonderfully named Six-Thirty), that this book, despite its dark themes and bitter-pill scenes, fills you with hope. It has such heart, such warmth and possibility – this is mainly due to Zott and her little family. I laughed out loud so often (I woke my hubby one night), and found it hard to tear myself away from the story.
There is not a word out of place, a character who doesn’t matter. This is a sharply observed, beautifully told story that delivers an important lesson about self-belief, about challenging the status-quo, about supporting people and how kindness and goodness are everything.
As you can tell, I adored this book. Just adored it. So much so, I wish I hadn’t finished it. One of my top reads – ever.