Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry
  Lessons in Chemistry
Author:  Bonnie Garmus
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2022. 400 pages.
ISBN:  038554734X / 978-0385547345

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbeltless cars without giving it a second though; back before anyone knew there'd even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over."

Favorite Quote:  "Courage is the root of change - and change is what we're chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge. No more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others' opinions of what you can and cannot achieve. And no more allowing anyone to pigeonholed you into useless categories of sex, race, economic status, and religion. Do not allow your talents to lie dormant, ladies. Design your own future. When you go home today, ask yourself what you will change. And then get started."

Elizabeth Zott is a TV star. She hosts her own cooking show titled Supper at 6. She is a single mother to young Madeline. Elizabeth Zott was once a research chemist. She had no intentions of becoming a mother. Her dream was of scientific discovery.

How one chapter of Elizabeth's life leads to the other is the premise of this book. What happened after is the story of this book. In that context, this book touches on so many issues - feminism, motherhood, gender biases in professional environments, scars of childhood trauma, grief, friendship, and love.

Each of the characters - including the dog - represent a different perspective on these issues. Elizabeth is the scientist no one takes seriously because she is a woman. Her word and her work is not believed. That forever alters the path of her life. Calvin is the absent-minded scientist, who is brilliant but who also gets away with behavior because he is a man. No one questions his abilities or his behavior, at least not in public. Harriet is the woman who finally finds her voice and the courage to listen to that voice. Madeline is the five year old, who, despite her genius level precociousness, needs to know that her world is safe. Six-Thirty, the dog with the unusual name, embodies unconditional love and a fierce protectiveness for those he loves. He combines that with a huge dose of guilt. Despite being a dog, he is very much a "human" character in this book. Oh, the dog is also a genius for he recognizes language - actual words - and follows stories.

At time, this book is funny. At times, it is heartbreaking. Some of it seems farfetched and over the top. At times, it seems like everything that could go wrong for Elizabeth does. At a different point, it is the complete opposite and it all goes her way. There are points at which I wonder if a different path may have been found or followed. The ending and the connections drawn to achieve that ending are a little too conveniently placed.

All that aside, the book nevertheless resonates with me for one primary reason. It is set in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, so many of the conversations - particularly about gender biases - continue today. So much has changed, and yet, at times, it is as if nothing has changed. 

To me, that often speaks to the success of a book. It takes me as the reader on a journey, and somewhere along the way, I see some part of my own journey reflected in it. Two interesting pieces of advice I walk away with:
  • "Don't work the system. Outsmart it."
  • "Take a moment for yourself... Every day. A moment. A moment where you are your own priority... Whatever you need, whatever your want, whatever you seek, reconnect with it in that moment... Then recommit."
Given that this is Bonnie Garmus's debut novel, I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.


  1. This one is on my list since last month. I've bought four books this year, but Michelle Obama won out (the knitting connection pushed me over the edge there). I'll have to wait a little over 3 more hours, but it sounds right up my alley. Thanks, Nada!

    1. We were flipped in our reading/listening order. I read this one first and then just finished listening to Michelle Obama's new book. In my case, a book club meeting discussing this book won out. I look forward to hearing what you think of this one.

    2. Ahh. I bought a cookbook instead, but I'm almost at 300 pts in my kindle rewards account; still working my way through the book on the McKinsey group.

    3. I completely understand the distraction from one book by other books. I love cookbooks!