Lessons In Chemistry
By Bonnie Garmus
Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ is, amongst other things, a refreshingly honest book.
It is the story of a brilliant scientist working at the Hastings Research Institute in the ’50s who happens to be a woman. Bonnie Garmus’ protagonist, Elizabeth Zott is an overachiever and working in a field mostly dominated by men. Her greatest battle is remaining dedicated to her work while fighting preconceived notions and struggling to be taken seriously.
Elizabeth is a rationalist and painfully aware of the patriarchal system that she needs to work around. Having endured trauma in her youth and then later as a young woman, she is aware of the ugliness that rests below the surface of her environment. Her work is her escape and she is uncompromising when it comes to her intelligence. Elizabeth is fiercely true to herself; she believes that she has a responsibility towards her intellect and talent.
Garmus, however, reminds us and her protagonist that life has an inevitability of its own and, as time progresses, Elizabeth finds herself a single mother, short on money, presenting a daytime television cooking show. But Elizabeth is, if nothing else, a fighter. She hosts her cooking show as a chemistry lesson and, much to the shock of her producer, the show is a resounding success.
Women across the country find themselves resonating with this brilliant, beautiful, no-nonsense woman, who validates their struggles to get meals on the tables and look after their children at the cost of their own selves.
The writing of a debut novelist at the age of 64 reflects the wisdom and confidence that she has due to her experience and stikes a defiant tone about taking women’s voices seriously
When Elizabeth’s producer, Walter feels that perhaps she is overreaching, he reminds her that the show is for “…just normal housewives you’ll be talking to. Just your average Janes.” Elizabeth is infuriated, as she states a fact has forever been overlooked: “There’s nothing average about the average housewife.”
This is one of the most important points Garmus makes in her book. Women who stay at home and the work they do is belittled and disregarded to such a great extent that they themselves start to believe that they are “just housewives”, doing something ordinary. In fact, it is an extraordinary undertaking on several levels. Garmus emphasises this throughout the book.
Whilst interacting with her studio audience, Elizabeth meets Mrs Fillis, mother of five who confesses, rather sheepishly, that before she became a mother and wife, she was interested in the medical profession. Bracing herself for ridicule and laughter at such an audacious idea, she is instead greeted by resounding applause as Elizabeth encourages her, saying it is never too late.
When she argues in return that becoming a doctor is hard work, Elizabeth immediately interrupts her and says, “And raising five boys isn’t ?” This is where Mrs Fillis realises that she is indeed being taken very seriously, perhaps for the first time, by an accomplished scientist, and feels a great sense of validation.
Garmus highlights how often housewives are subjected to indifference by the overall community, men and other women included. The responsibility thrust upon the shoulders of a housewife is immense, without any structured work hours or remuneration in exchange.
In an interview with YOU magazine, Garmus explains that she had set her book in the ’60s because that was when her mother was a full-time housewife, raising four children. Garmus could understand the frustration that her mother felt at times, and the challenges that she faced. It is so unfortunate that the perceived reality of a housewife has not changed much. Even today, women who stay home are often belittled and their contribution towards society as a whole set aside.
Garmus adopts a free-floating voice that flits in and out of several of her characters’ heads, including Elizabeth’s faithful dog, Six-Thirty, who has his own astute observations regarding the human species. This allows the reader to grasp the story through different vantage points.
For example, there is Walter, Elizabeth’s producer. He is initially in awe of her and her accomplishments but, as the story progresses, they form a bond of friendship, which is rare to find in the best of circumstances. Garmus shows through Walter how men can be allies to women, how they can rise beyond the beck and call of patriarchy and change their mindsets to facilitate women, to look beyond the casual sexism that always seeps in.
Walter is not an extraordinary man; he is one of the many good men around us who, unknowingly become a part of the system. It is only when they are confronted with a gross injustice that they realise that they are a part of the problem. From there onwards, they proceed to do better.
Walter and Elizabeth’s friendship is a breath of fresh air, it is comforting and wholesome and a source of strength for them both. Together, they navigate single parenthood and look out for each other.
Similarly, Elizabeth finds a friend in her neighbour, Harriet Sloane, who helps take care of Elizabeth’s daughter Madeline. The two develop an unlikely camaraderie and, in doing so, create their own family for Madeline. Garmus illustrates what happens when women actively help uplift other women. This includes creating an enabling environment that helps women overcome the challenges they face as they set out to achieve their dreams. It brings home the truth that there is nothing greater than the power of women who come together to help each other.
Garmus is brutally honest as a writer. Perhaps that is because she is writing her debut novel at the age of 64. Her opinions reflect the wisdom and confidence that she has due to her experience. In a piece by Amelia Hill, senior reporter of The Guardian, where she explores the rise of older female writers, she quotes Cherry Potts, owner of the independent publishing house Arachne Books: “There has been a sea change in publishers’ understanding and acceptance of older women’s experience and their voices, which are no longer dismissed as safe or cozy.”
This holds true as one reads Lessons in Chemistry. Garmus’s voice as a writer is firm and well aware of what she seeks to express. It echoes in her characters, in particular Elizabeth Zott and her young daughter Madeline, both whom I perceived to embody Garmus’s own fearlessness. But her characters are also human, fraught with weaknesses and imperfections. It is because of her deep understanding of human nature, that every character will seem familiar to the reader. They will remind you of the many different people that you meet as you go about living your life.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Garmus explains, “Readers identify with Elizabeth Zott. There are so few of us who haven’t been put down, pushed aside, maligned, passed over, rejected, ripped off, lied to or treated badly, simply because we’re women, people of colour, gender-diverse, neuro-diverse, too fat, too thin, too short, too tall — you name it. But Elizabeth is a rationalist; she doesn’t confuse societal prejudice with facts, nor does she accept direction from those who do.”
Lessons in Chemistry is a very pertinent and important book. It shows us how far we have come and how much further we have yet to go. As Garmus herself writes in a comment on her goodreads.com page, “The story was inspired by a bad day at work. I’d been in a meeting and had endured some standard sexism. Furious, I felt like I needed some reassurance that things for women had improved since the ’60s — and they have, but not enough.”
Like Elizabeth, Garmus too is an inspiring woman. She received 98 rejections before finally being published and, much like her protagonist, Garmus did not give up. And thank God for that. If she had, we would never have met her as a writer or met the incredible characters that she has created.
Hers is a book that is not preachy. Instead, it shifts the narrative with such subtlety that the reader will be caught completely unaware. The story she tells is one that will deeply resonate with all women, about struggle and patience. It will show men how unfair it is when a woman’s word is set aside or held hostage because of a man’s dismissive attitude. Get this book for your daughters and your sons, so that they learn what it means to be a part of a progressive community, to stand together as allies and what it takes to make the world a fairer, better place.
As Elizabeth says, “Courage is the root of change — and change is what we are chemically designed to do… No more holding yourself back… ask yourself what you will change. And then get started.”
The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature.
She tweets @ShehryarSahar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 6th, 2023