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Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry book cover


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Book Review

When Elizabeth Zott becomes the host for an afternoon cooking show, the men want her to do things their way. But as a good chemist, she’s much more interested in changing up the formula. There are, after all, lessons that need to be learned.

Plot Summary

In 1962, a woman’s life is far from easy.

I mean, some would say that if a “gal” just stayed in her lane, got married, raised a family and minded her Ps and Qs, then things were manageable. But Elizabeth Zott has never been that kind of woman.

I mean what do Ps and Qs have to do with anything?!

In her heart of hearts, Elizabeth is simply and purely a scientist—a chemist, to be specific. And that’s what makes sense to her. Formulas. Experiments. Chemical bonds. Those are all things that fit well in her brain. In truth, not only do they fit, but they help make sense of life itself.

That’s why Elizabeth Zott is not only a great scientist but also a pretty great cook. It’s all a matter of chemical combinations, precise formulas and experimentation.

But … more about that cooking side of things in a moment.

You see, for all of her hard work and careful focus, everything has always seemed to go wrong for the very talented Zott. And a lot of it has been driven by the hardheaded, domineering and lust-driven men of science in 1962. (No, I take that back. It’s the men in every walk of life in 1962 that are the problem.)

For nearly all men of the day, a pretty woman—and Elizabeth Zott is surely one of those—is supposed to stick to the secretarial pool. Or the bedroom. Well, they’d find the kitchen to be acceptable, too, I suppose. But for a woman to be the smartest person in the room? The one who formulates groundbreaking theories and wins science grants? Oh no, that can never be a woman’s role.

In fact, if a woman does come up with something of great interest, her male superior is likely to steal it and publish it as his own.

Naturally, by age 28, Elizabeth Zott has already had a difficult go of things. She was almost raped as a college student. She was kicked out of her doctoral program after the above result. She met and lost the most loving and brilliant man she had ever met. And now, here she sits. She’s jobless and with a young child out of wedlock.

But that’s when something good happens. (It didn’t feel good at the moment, but it was.) Through a confluence of disparate circumstances involving Zott’s handmade school lunch; a particularly irksome teacher; and a divorced father/producer at the end of his rope; Elizabeth Zott receives a job offer.

If she can display just a bit of her attractiveness and a dash of her cooking skill in an afternoon TV slot—one that was recently vacated by a clown show—she can earn a little money to support herself and her daughter.

Her first reaction is a definite no. But then something dawns on her. She might not draw a huge audience, but a cooking show is, in essence, a lesson about chemistry and chemical reactions. And she could teach it.

She wouldn’t wear the required tight TV costume or smirk foolishly for the camera, of course. But she could talk to women. She could teach them, challenge them, experiment along with them. And who knows, she might just change up the formula of their lives a little.

Experimental formulas have always been her forte, after all.

Christian Beliefs

Elizabeth looks askance at anything to do with religion or faith. Not only does she repeatedly declare that faith is foolish and baseless (as do others), but she also isn’t even geared to tolerate it. We learn that Elizabeth’s father was something of a con-artist evangelist who was eventually jailed for nearly killing people with his grandstanding and explosive displays “of faith.” Her mother ran off to another country to escape paying taxes on their ill-gotten wealth.

Elizabeth’s father also drove her older brother to suicide with repeated declarations of God’s hatred for the young man’s sin.

Elizabeth admits to a woman in her show’s audience that she doesn’t believe in God when the woman asks about saying grace before a meal. Elizabeth’s admission causes some to picket outside the show and say nasty things about her lost soul.

Elizabeth’s soulmate, brilliant scientist Calvin Evan’s, was raised in a Catholic orphanage after his adoptive parents were killed in an accident. It is strongly implied that he had to fight off sexually abusive priests as a boy, and the priests also lie and cheat to get donations. The school’s teachers rip sections out of science texts that don’t match up with their theology.

Calvin also has a series of correspondences with a Presbyterian minister. They share thoughts of science and faith. But while Calvin never wavers from his declaration that faith has no bearing on life, the minister eventually steps back from faith in God. In fact, when we meet the man later, he’s still in the ministering profession (and a nice man), but someone without any spiritual conviction.

The only positive thing said about godliness is when Elizabeth states that she starts thinking of her neighbor, a helpful woman named Harriet, as “something holy.” She sees Harriet as a “practical priest,” someone she can confess things to—”fears, hopes, mistakes.”

Other Belief Systems

Calvin and Elizabeth both declare that only science can be empirically proven to be factual. And so that’s where their faith and beliefs lie.

You could say, however, that Elizabeth’s 4-year-old daughter, Madeline, has a special spiritual sensitivity about her. She’s very bright and perceptive, and she senses other people’s unspoken thoughts such as Elizabeth’s hidden sadness, their dog’s feelings of guilt and Harriet’s fear that she has never been in love.

Authority Roles

Most of the people who have authority over Elizabeth are men. And men, in general, aren’t very laudable in Lessons in Chemistry. Most are, at the very least, emotionally abusive to nearly every woman they meet. They demean them, ignore them and, in a number of cases, abuse them verbally, emotionally and physically. And it’s expected that women in 1962 should take what they’re given and stay quiet about it.

For instance, when a college professor attempts to rape Elizabeth, the cop writing up the crime asks a bleeding Elizabeth if she wants to make an apology statement, suggesting that doing so will make things easier for her in the long run. She refuses and loses her position in a doctoral program. In fact, of all the men we meet in this story, only a few are portrayed as trustworthy and upright.

Both Elizabeth and Calvin have no connection with their parents. And they have very few people they can look to for positive guidance.

On the other hand, Elizabeth is an odd combination of brilliance and beauty mixed with something close to savant levels of emotional detachment. She smiles on, perhaps, three occasions in the story. However, she is a gifted teacher and loving mother. She teaches daughter Madeline to read at a very young age while helping her understand the complexities of her young life. She even takes on the job of teaching their adopted dog to understand human words, growing his lexicon of understood phrases into the hundreds.

Harriet and her husband divorce. She finds a caring companion in Mr. Pine. People in authority openly lie to gain prestige, recognition and money.

Profanity & Violence

The book doesn’t feel densely profane, but there are repeated uses of f- and s-words, exclamations of “h—,” “d–n” and “b–tch” and misuses of Jesus’ name.

We hear of some people drinking. Harriet is hit with a bottle thrown by her drunken husband. She makes it plain that he gets drunk often.

Elizabeth notes that her relationships with men (other than Calvin Evans) tended to be destructive and negative. “She only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her or tell her what to do,” she thinks.

We see several situations that are quite demonstrative of that thought. She is sexually attacked by a college professor, bloodied and slapped senseless, and the rape is only stopped because she jams a sharpened pencil into the man’s side. Another woman says a similar thing happened to her. And another man angrily approaches Elizabeth and pushes his exposed genitals in her face before being stopped by the sharp end of a large knife.

A man is killed in an unfortunate accident when he falls and is run over by a car. Another man has a massive heart attack. Someone is said to have committed suicide by hanging.

Sexual Content

Elizabeth reports that her beloved older brother was gay. Elizabeth’s producer friend, Mr. Pine, finds out that his young daughter was actually the product of an affair his wife had with another man. But he declares that regardless of the genetics, she is still his daughter. “He loved her with all his heart,” the book tells us.

Some men and women make rude suggestions and untrue statements about Elizabeth and her sexual life, suggesting that she’s promiscuous. The accusations are largely baseless, but the unmarried Elizabeth does have a sexual relationship with Calvin. (The story describes some of their caressing conversations while lying together after sex.) Calvin asks Elizabeth to marry him, but she refuses.

Discussion Topics


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Additional Comments

Lessons in Chemistry is a New York Times bestselling book that was adapted and recently released as a stylish AppleTV+ series starring Brie Larson.

The book has a “young adult” energy about it. And first-time author Bonnie Garmus uses a compelling female protagonist and an early 1960s setting to create a memorable feminist fantasy.

This tale presents a sometimes amusing and insightful perspective on life and learning. But potential readers should also note that the story frowns at what it considers the “failings” of traditional marriage, and (with a few exceptions) turns the men from the 1960s into buffoonish and villainous stereotypes. In addition, Lessons in Chemistry delivers repeated negative comments about faith and those who have faith in God as part of their lives.

Interestingly though, the book as a whole is rather narrowly focused on its own sermonizing. And those full-throated lessons will offer contemplative fuel, or at least combustive chemistry, to readers of a certain stripe.

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Review by Bob Hoose