Lessons in Chemistry has been out for over a year and I am late to the party of fandom. A Christmas gift from one of my family members and one I treasure. The novel earns a place in the permanent home library. The delay in reading is attributed to the difficult year of 2023. So, I am very appreciative of the book as it is a great start to 2024.
Debut novelist Bonnie Garmus impresses with her wit and the depth of her writing. Depending on the individual reader’s experiences, the soul-searching Lessons in Chemistry will evoke feelings running the gamut from regret to resolve. And many stages in between.
Setting of Lessons in Chemistry
The United States of America, specifically the state of California, with a time period of the late 1950s, early 1960s serves as a backdrop of this delightful novel. Protagonist Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. Unheard of for the time period. Very few women earned science degrees in this era.
She is also a feminist. Author Bonnie Garmus does a great job painting a picture of the early years of women fighting for equality. Some of the obstacles and confrontations remain today. However, it is good to note the positive changes that we take for granted, such as wearing slacks to work and a narrowing wage gap.
Lessons in Chemistry Plot
Zott does not fit in. Yet she finds her soulmate in fellow chemist Calvin Evans. Evans is a misfit. Their relationship is told in retrospect. They share work, home and a dog with the appropriate name of 6:30. Zott is teaching the highly intelligent animal English. Not since Remarkably Bright Creatures, have I been so engaged with anthropomorphism.
Unfortunately, Zott ends up as an unwed single mother. And life begins.
Garmus uses a wide cast of characters to tell the story of individuals fulfilling their purpose. In addition to Zott, her daughter Madeline, Harriet Sloane and Miss Frask provide an array of positive female personalities. However, mean girls and women were a thing way back when.
Then there are the men.
Calvin Evans, Pine, Dr. Mason and the preacher Wakely line up on the good side while Donatti, the Bishop, Phil and a few others make you wonder why some men walk the earth. Lessons in Chemistry isn’t just about allowing women to reach their potential. Evil is present in both sexes and Garmus provides examples to ponder.
I found the book to be very entertaining with one particular chapter bringing forth loud laughter. A true paradox since the story itself is bittersweet. And yet I think that piece is intentional. As is the discussion on the role of religion between both Wakely and Evans and Wakely and Zott. Thus, Lessons in Chemistry provides food for thought.
I join many, many others in highly recommending Lessons in Chemistry. A few of us are fortunate enough to have our own E. Zott in the family. For the rest, Garmus has provided a glimpse of such a role model. All youth need encouragement and the chance to grow- physically, mentally and spiritually. This debut novel should be required reading somewhere at the high school level. However, senior year is too late.
Truly this book will be another long-term favorite much like Where the Crawdads Sing.