Book review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Whenever you pick up a book, the hope, always springing eternal, is that this will be a read that will touch you deeply on some level.

After all, what is a book if it doesn’t whisk you off to other realms or peer incisively into your soul, or at the very least, show you a place and time you that might otherwise have eluded you?

The truth is though that wonderful though many books are, they don’t reach right into your heart and soul, give it an almighty squeeze and leave you gasping in the wake of necessary invasiveness, wondering what to do with the revelations laid out before you and the emotional stirring now crashing over every once solid rock in your existential existence.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is, however, one of the novels that does precisely that, its eloquent, accessible prose, probing insights and utterly memorable, seared-into-your-consiousness protagonist leaving an indelible mark, the kind that persists long after the last page is reluctantly turned.

From page 1 it becomes brilliantly, transparently clear that Elizabeth Zott is not the kind of lead character who is going to be content with meekly driving along a narrative or setting the place of commentary or observation; she is a wholly wonderfully disruptive force, the type of person who sees a hidebound status quo and think “how on earth can I upend that?” (although never consciously; Zott, as she is often affectionately referred to by other people in her chosen family, is simply uncompromisingly, authentically herself and as a result, the established order, if not ended, finds itself shaking considerably and not always to others’ liking).

“Elizabeth continued to sit silently. Against her better judgement, she felt herself warming to the idea. She didn’t want to: She didn’t like the notion that systems had to be outsmarted. Why couldn’t they just be smart in the first place? And she certainly didn’t like favors. Favors smacked of cheating. And yet she had goals, and dammit, why should she just sit by? Sitting by never got anyone anywhere.” (P. 27)

Set in the 1950s into the 1960s in Commons, California, in an era when the woman’s place was mostly definitely in the home, and it was men, by universal consent (though not quite universal, right Elizabeth?) who did the “important” stuff, Lessons in Chemistry is the story of a far-from-average woman who, by her very existence, challenges the very order of things, in all their misogynistic, sclerotic, (significant lack of) glory.

Elizabeth doesn’t set out to start a revolution of sorts but she’s damned if she’s going to sit by, with her brilliant mind for chemistry and willingness to ask “why?” when it doesn’t occur to so many others to even ask the question, when her fellow all-male scientists at the Hastings Research Institute seem to think of her as little more than a lab tech there to make them their coffee.

Possessed of a view of equality which is laughably lopsided at best and which, unsurprisingly, favours them in the extreme, her male colleagues are emblematic of a world which slots women into small, inconsequential places – again this is an issue of warped perspective; surely raising children and keeping a house is immensely consequential when it comes to societal cohesiveness? – and expects them to meekly and uncomplainingly stay there.

That’s something of which Elizabeth is not willing to have even a bar of, even though, like so many of her female contemporaries, she is pushed down again and again every she dares to have a project with meaning and import or wants to, heaven forfend, wear pants.

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

The only man who takes her seriously is the Hastings Research Institute’s star recruit, the golden poster boy of chemistry Calvin Evans who takes falls in love with her mind, taking everything that his beloved Elizabeth and weighing it to be every bit the equal of what he or any of his male colleagues do.

Theirs is, as Elizabeth, later wistfully describes it, a “collision” of souls, two people coming together in loss and loneliness, each rejected by their families and adrift in a society which expects you to tick all the orthodoxy boxes or be subject to the kind of damnation of which the Spanish Inquisition was inordinately fond.

Even this most wondrous of romantic couplings comes in for savage ridicule by those too small-minded to do more than uphold an unthinking status quo, and when cruel and unpredictable events conspire to leave Elizabeth as a single mother only a few years hence, the mindless cult-like criticism of the masses pivots herself, dreaming up a whole other list of sins for which Elizabeth must atone.

What makes Lessons in Chemistry such a glorious, heartwarming, revolution for the soul, and there can be no way to read this beautifully written and intelligently heartfelt novel without feel many and considerable things, is how Elizabeth just simply by being herself, makes such a profound difference to the world around her.

“‘So to clarify,’ she said, ‘I’m being fired because I won’t wear your clothes and smile into your camera, but also because—is this correct?—I don’t know ‘who you are’. And to further make your point, you’re firing everyone associated with Supper at Six even though these people also work on four or five other shows for which they’d suddenly be in absentia. Meaning that those other shows will also be affected to the point where they will not be able to air.'” (Elizabeth Zott, P. 272)

Granted, it’s not necessarily an upending of things so profound that nothing is the same in her wake – society during that era seems to be damn well impervious to change though we know in glorious hindsight that that doesn’t last long in the end – but for Elizabeth, who goes from cutting-edge chemical research to hosting a nationally-syndicated cooking show, Supper At Six, which foments its bucking of the orthodox in ways that will delight those who see a change, especially that which arrives accidentally and subversively, as necessary and good, and which proves to be the catalyst for sustained change in Elizabeth’s life and those who, fortunately for them, fall into her orbit.

As protagonists go, Elizabeth is a joy because, without an ounce of malice or militaristic intent, and simply by sticking to her guns and demanding, with absolute justification, to be treated as equally and fairly as her male colleagues and friends, she asks the world “WHY?”

Why are women deemed to have no worth in the workforce? Why must they never stray from the home and why aren’t their minds worth as much as a man? Why is their only value as producers of children and polishers of the silver? And why does religion hold so much sway that it is scandalous for a woman, never the man it seems, to have sex out of wedlock and bear a child?

All those whys, and a thousand others are voiced directly and indirectly by Elizabeth in Lessons in Chemistry which is awash in a vivacious, life-filled questioning of the social order, every page stacked to the brim with a willingness to simply be true to yourself, something our wonderfully forthright protagonist does, not to cause trouble for trouble’s sake, but simply to get people to ask themselves why things are the way they are, they should and can change, and how much better and right it would be if they did.

As revolutions go, Lessons in Chemistry is a stunningly evocative, affectingly grounded and unexpectedly hopeful gem, a rallying cry to change everything if it needs changing, to be true to yourself no matter the consequences and to never accept the dead, stifling hand of orthodoxy if it means your life, or that of those you love, is lesser.

Through means immeasurably incisive, quirky and buoyantly, poignantly human, this masterfully-written novel prosecutes its case in ways that endear you to Elizabeth, in all her self-belief and integrity of self, fully and completely and which will inspire you, if you have ever been consigned to the margins, to realise that change begins with you and it can, if you’re willing, start right now.

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