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'Lessons in Chemistry' book review: A riveting story about sexism in science

'Lessons in Chemistry' is a fizzing first novel for a number of reasons. Despite the serious theme, Bonnie Garmus’ writing, characterized by a dry wit, keeps us entertained.

July 31, 2022 / 09:16 AM IST
In the last sixty years we have created a more equal world, but the gender disparity remains. (Representational image: Les Anderson via Unsplash)

In the last sixty years we have created a more equal world, but the gender disparity remains. (Representational image: Les Anderson via Unsplash)


A new book, about a female scientist in the 1960s, that has quietly but steadily created a buzz is Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel Lessons In Chemistry. Its opening sentence not only grabs the reader’s attention but also sets the tone and mood of the novel: ‘Back in 1961 when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbeltless cars without giving it a thought; back before anyone knew there’d even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and was certain of one thing: that her life was over.’

Chemistry is change

Lessons in Chemistry bookElizabeth Zott, a single mum, is an out-of-work chemist who is depressed. To pay the bills she takes up a TV gig, as the host in a cookery show, Supper at Six, meant for housewives. While that is how her employers see her new job description, Elizabeth expands it by imparting chemistry lessons to her audience. Why chemistry? ‘Because when women understand chemistry, they begin to understand how things work.’ They also ‘begin to see the limits that have been created for them.’ In no time at all, the show’s popularity sky-rockets and Elizabeth becomes a super star. Clearly she is an independent-minded, smart, plucky and ambitious woman. Why then does she continue to feel depressed?

To help us understand this, the story jumps back twelve years when working for her Master’s degree, Elizabeth was sexually assaulted by her supervisor. Besides the loss of reputation, the incident led to her being rescinded from the doctoral program. She had to settle for a lowly job as a research assistant at Hastings Institute where all the other scientists were male. Here, too, the casual everyday gender bias continued: scepticism about her ability despite her obvious talent and disparagement from other women, the administrative staff, who had internalised the rampant misogyny.

Hastings Institute, however, was also the place where Elizabeth met the brilliant but reclusive Calvin Evans, nominated thrice for the Nobel Prize. ‘If relationships were a puzzle then theirs was solved from the get-go – as if someone shook out a box and watched from above as each separated piece landed exactly right.’

Close

Though soulmates, a marriage wasn’t on the cards. Elizabeth simply didn’t want it. Her reason: ‘I don’t want to be another Mileva Einstein or Esther Lederberg, Calvin; I refuse.’ However, she wasn’t averse to moving in together and getting a dog, a runaway from a bomb squad, who was duly named Six-thirty and displayed surprisingly human characteristics – like having a deeper understanding and an advanced vocabulary.

Among the other arrangements this delightful couple had, was one in which Elizabeth did most of the cooking in exchange for her share of the house rent. ‘For Elizabeth, cooking wasn’t a pre-ordained feminine duty. As she’d told Calvin, it was chemistry.’ To give an example, the mystery of why the biscuit batter was off had a simple explanation: ‘too many water molecules.’

A life this perfect had to be disrupted and Calvin’s death in a tragic accident did that. Left pregnant, and fired from her job because of her condition being out-of-wedlock – yes, you read that right – Elizabeth set about building a lab in her kitchen. She had her baby too, went back to work at Hastings, left again when she discovered that her work had been stolen. This was the turning point that compelled her to take the cooking show job.

Typically, by reaching out to other women trapped in other kitchens with her message that self-realisation is the first step to change, Elizabeth has started a mini revolution.

Reasons to read

Lessons In Chemistry is a fizzing first novel for a number of reasons. It introduces us to a protagonist we cannot help but like. Elizabeth’s doggedness is refreshing and original. Her refusal to fit into acceptable moulds is sure to hit the spot. Despite the serious theme, Garmus’ writing, characterized by a dry wit, keeps us entertained. Sample this: ‘Most of the women she’d met in college claimed they only wanted to get their MRS.’ The research underpinning the story, too, is impressive.

However, there are a few flaws. For one, the hopping back and forth in time is distracting. Though Elizabeth is a fully-fleshed-out character, other significant characters such as Dr Donatti, the head of Hastings Institute; Walter Pine, Elizabeth’s immediate boss at the television studio; Harriet Sloan, her neighbour and friend; Reverend Wakely, who was Calvin’s pen friend; and even Madeline, clearly a child prodigy, are mere sketches.

Finally, the mystery of Calvin’s birth parents, which runs through the book, is revealed in a rather contrived denouement. None of these, however, detract from the reading experience. It brings us to the most important reason for picking this book – its relevance.

Long road ahead

In the last sixty years we have created a more equal world, but the gender disparity remains. There are more women graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths, STEM, than before, yet they form less than 30 percent of its workforce. Studies have shown that women who choose careers in these fields publish less, are paid less and are not promoted to the levels of their male colleagues. In this regard, a recent study published in Nature is worth mentioning: while on the one hand, the COVID pandemic established that inclusivity and diversity are vital to collaboration in scientific research, it also revealed that a disproportionate amount of familial duties made it harder for women scientists with COVID-related research interests to pursue them. One last statistic: of the more than 600 Nobel laureates in science just 23 are women.
Madhavi S. Mahadevan is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.
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