“Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus – Guest Review

By: Abby Phoenix


Hi, I’m Abby! Like a lot of people, I have gone through several ebbs and flows in life with reading, from a childhood with my nose buried in a book, through various love-hate relationships with school-assigned reads, to the exciting rediscovery of reading again for pleasure in adulthood. 

Nowadays, I’ve settled into a life routine where I try to always make space for my current read, because it just helps my mood so much when I have some sort of book that I can dive back into in my spare moments. I love being absorbed into a good story, so I mostly stick to fiction. That love of being immersed into a story’s world means that I’m one of the few avid readers I know who cannot (I’ve tried and always fail!) read more than one book simultaneously. 

In the last five years or so, I’ve also tried to make it a habit to primarily read books not written by white men, in an effort to balance out all the reading I did until that point. Initially I thought that might be a difficult or overly limiting restriction, but instead, I’ve found it to be both easy to do, and incredibly enriching in terms of expanding and challenging my perspectives on the world – the very thing that we hope all books can do for us!


Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

Goodreads


“History is written by the victors” – a quote that is so true that, of course, even its own origin underscores the point that the loudest and most famous voice gets to claim sole ownership of our collective story.

Most of us know this to be true with just a little bit of critical thinking: life never has been a single, streamlined story fitting the clean few paragraphs we read in our history books. Countless stories are discarded (often forcibly) from our histories in favor of the narrative most favored by those in power, until enough time passes that we accept that story as solid fact. 

But on the other side of fact is fiction, oh, fiction. 

Fiction has always been a welcoming home for the stories untold, the ones that we know have always existed too, and might be even better. One such narrative is found in the extremely appealing period novel “Lessons in Chemistry,” by Bonnie Garmus, which introduces us to Elizabeth Zott, a woman who seems to exist completely outside of her time.

Elizabeth’s 1960s American setting expects women to be homemakers whose sole priority is keeping their husbands and children happy. As a brilliant chemist who’d love to be laser-focused on her work and nothing else, Elizabeth’s only request of the world around her is to be taken seriously as a scientist. But when she’s of course stymied in her original path by the standard tools of repression (the one-two punch of structural discrimination and societal shame), only one life option opens up to her as a possible path forward. That option, combining the identities deemed appropriate for a woman of her time (cook, teacher, and actress) and the era’s shiny new medium: a television chef.

Giving Elizabeth this platform though proves to be a mistake for those who would prefer she stay in her pre-assigned place. Looking through our 2022 lens, we all now know something that they were still waking up to in the 1960s: television has a way of lending automatic authority to anyone on its screens, and flattening their identity in the process. Elizabeth’s newfound notoriety helps her achieve a version of her original goal of establishing herself as a scientist, by the simple act of calling herself one on television. 

Additionally, and more powerfully, by using a medium that gives her direct access to women around the country (“this is a show for normal housewives!” is a message she receives repeatedly) Elizabeth is able to broadcast her profound expectations for all other women in the world. This is based in simple fact: modern society only operates as well as it does due to the consistent hard work that half of the population puts into keeping it moving. That work has tangible value, whether or not it’s socially and economically recognized. Crucially, Elizabeth both sees and inspires others to see the potential in this women’s work: women can do this, and they are capable of so much more too.

It’s a heady journey to witness, and Elizabeth and the characters who surround her (both human and canine) are largely likable compatriots on that path. But while the story itself may make you pump your fist or at the very least, nod along towards its satisfying conclusion, it’s worthwhile to examine this enjoyable read a bit more closely. Characters like Elizabeth star in so many of our favorite fictional stories that purport to tell some of the real story of the history we know: the single person who thinks differently from everyone around them and stands up to the system. This story of a charismatic iconoclast like Elizabeth igniting change in a whole society that never encountered someone quite like her is certainly cathartic as we try to reconcile how times seem to shift so quickly, turning American women from Donna Reeds to Gloria Steinems in the space of a mere decade. But it’s also a lie. 

Just like in the 1960s, and in all times before and since: there is no one Elizabeth Zott coming to save us – instead, it is incumbent upon us all to tap into our internal Elizabeth in ways small and large as we work together to build our own stories of what will hopefully one day become our history.


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