This book has already been widely reviewed by the professional reviewing community. But I bought my copy and want to tell you why you should do the same.
This is an astonishing debut novel, but its slickness and technical competence probably reflect the fact that the author has many years as a copywriter under her belt. That said there is nothing hackneyed or formulaic about the writing. It’s compelling, sophisticated, complex and loaded with stuff to make you think. The protagonist Elizabeth Zott is a chemist who falls in love, does not marry, loses her lover but gains their child. She’s obsessed with rowing and cooking and ends up hosting a cooking show on television that becomes hugely successful to everyone’s surprise.
But that is in the sixties and Zott’s story begins in the fifties at a research facility where everyone envies this beautiful, committed and gifted woman. Other women at the place are jealous and conniving, and groping by male colleagues is de rigeur, in line with the times. Being old myself I am familiar with the trope although in my case it was the seventies rather than the fifties and by the seventies men were a little less obvious in their abuses. It is still a common if even less overt occurence. And people still do their best to thwart a woman’s progress especially if she is pretty and unconventional as Elizabeth Zott is. A belief persists that if one is pretty one should a) expect uninvited sexual attention and b) not bother with a career because being pretty means one doesn’t need to. It’s a mentality that is still deeply ingrained and not just amongst men.
Setting her story in the fifties and sixties allows Garmus to illustrate with sharp focus a serious problem that persists to this day. Only by bringing it into stark and shocking contrast can we all address it, especially the men who still don’t get the point of why women want to be treated as equals. Women are still categorised according to their appearance and attitude, not just by men for whom there isn’t the same depth of problem. The truism runs deepest in the male psyche, especially in that of the chivalrous and charming ones. Most of them so miss the point and the ones who don’t are in denial. The ones who persist with being charming and chivalrous and do get the point are the keepers. But they are admittedly rare.
Elizabeth Zott is necessarily an extreme character. She responds to every situation with varying degrees of detachment based on what she observes and her understanding of it. She refuses to play the role society has assigned because it hasn’t occurred to her that she has a predefined role. She’s been incidental and not central in her own life’s story, so she has no reason or space for self-doubt. She doesn’t even consider that she’s being difficult and unexpected because she’s not. Zott’s being honest, unfiltered and truthful, true to herself and we could do with more women like her. Zott is a full-on distillation of femininity, independent objectivity, integrity and intuitive intelligence. She is also intensely warm, passionate and loving. She is deeply touched by consistently bizarre tragedies and loss. She is consistently cheated and molested by colleagues, but allows none of it to pollute her sense of self or truth.
As the book progresses we learn more about Zott’s bizarre back-story and that of her lover, chemist and potential Nobel candidate, Calvin Evans. The book just gets more and more compelling so it becomes necessary to take a break from the narrative and set the book down. You realise that you are absolutely loving the characters and that the novel’s gripping pace is taking you too quickly to the end. I had to put Lessons in Chemistry aside at least twice because I didn’t want it to end. And I wanted to think of ways in which the many narrative strands would be resolved. There was no great and unexpected twist at the end, but the end did come far too suddenly. This was the only flaw in an otherwise immaculate reading experience.
A helpful editor should have pointed out to Bonnie Garmus that there needed to be about twice the scene setting and at least double the story telling for that final chapter. It really should have been spread over a couple of chapters to be consistent with the rhythm of the earlier parts of the book. But what do I know. Maybe other readers would also have appreciated more emotional expurgation from these newly explored late-comers. Maybe other readers would also want a deeper examination of their emotional responses and some sense of what happens next in their lives. It was all a bit too rushed for me, but read the book yourself and see what you think. Oh and I would love to know what the chemical notation on the tombstone says.