Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is a delightful read. It starts in 1961 when Elizabeth Zott, thirty years old, trudges into her quite popular cooking show, Supper at Six, with the enthusiasm of a woman who would rather be anywhere else. Despite the national acclaim and success, she is visibly not happy.
Jump back ten years earlier and the novel peels the reasons why. A gifted chemist, but a woman, Elizabeth has not found success as a research scientist in a male-dominated industry. It was, after all, the 50s, and women were expected to assume the role of a housewife. Misogyny, discrimination, and harassment were normal. Women were not supposed to have a voice outside the house. Women were not supposed to reject a marriage proposal, especially if such a proposal came from the much-revered Calvin Evans. Women were not supposed to have a daughter out of wedlock. Things Elizabeth, always the rational woman, never understood why.
When she met Calvin Evans, it was not love at first sight. She barged in at Evans’ expansive lab and grabbed all the unused beakers around. Even when they became a couple, Elizabeth sought to maintain her identity separate from her partner, which was why she rejected his marriage proposal. She was not the marrying kind. She didn’t want children. She went against everything that women her age in that age were supposed to be. This made her an easy target for everyone in her workplace to hate and gossip about. So when an unfortunate incident happened where one life ended and another began, Elizabeth found herself eased out of her work, pregnant, and broke. Without Evans, she was a nobody at Hastings Research Institute.
Ill-equipped to be a mother, she treated her house like a big laboratory remodeling the kitchen while pregnant to resemble that of a lab. When her daughter, Mad, was wise enough to be at school, she prepared her meals in such balanced chemical precision that led her to be offered a cooking show during one of the deadest hours in the afternoon called the Afternoon Depression Zone, the time between 1:31 P.M. and 4:44 P.M., where the brain simply refuses to function.
While she told her producer, Walter, the father of Mad’s classmate, that she was a chemist and not interested to host a cooking show, she also knew that she was broke. She has a daughter and a dog to feed. She agreed to do the show for its initial run of six months, but then women everywhere began to love her no-nonsense approach and the lessons in chemistry she dished out on the food she was preparing. Soon, her show became a hit and it was syndicated nationwide.
What happens when you become successful, but not in the field you wanted? You become depressed. You feel disconnected from yourself and from your life. Work becomes a chore that pays the bill. You trudge to your workplace with the enthusiasm of a person who would rather be anywhere else.
Garmus writes her debut novel in the voice of an omniscient narrator. She jumps from one character to another, even that of Elizabeth’s dog, Six-Thirty. Initially, I was disoriented by the narrative choice. She was jumping from Mad’s thoughts, to Elizabeth’s, to Calvin’s, to Harriet’s—Elizabeth’s neighbor, and to every minor character in the novel. But I realized that this gave the characters more depth. For the women characters specifically, this revealed the complexity of their innermost thoughts and desires in a time when women were reduced to being simple housewives or secretaries. Once I got accustomed to the shifts, it became a more enjoyable read. Harriet and office-nemesis-turned-friend Miss Frask have great character arcs and developments.
With Elizabeth Zott, Garmus gave us an unforgettable character that broke the ceiling in the 60s when ceilings were much higher and harder to break. Elizabeth’s journey may not be how she imagined it to be when it started, but life’s twists and turns gave her a much more rewarding surprise in the end. There were some loose ends before the book ended, but Garmus found a way to tie everything together in a profound and touching way. At once funny and insightful, add this to your must-read list before it hits your TV screen with Brie Larson on Apple TV.
Chris Daniel has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter @cd_loza and Instagram @danmloza.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]