Friday, December 16, 2022

Bonnie Garmus - Lessons in Chemistry

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.
But it's the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute take a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans, the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with - of all things - her mind. True chemistry results.
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.

Comment: This is this author's first book and it has taken the world of books by storm. It has already won an award and has been nominated for a few others and the vast majority of readers who read it have liked it. I confess I rarely give in to the hype, at least not while the hype is ongoing, but agreed to buddy read it with a friend, and that is why it got on my list for this month.

For those who have not yet seen the publicity about it, this is the story of Elizabeth Zott, a very determined and intelligent young woman who, during the late 50s and 60s tries to work in her field, chemistry, but is constantly battling for an opportunity and for her rights when the world of professional chemists is formatted for men only. She manages to work at Hastings Research Institute, but is always considered less able than her male co workers, even though deep down everyone knows she is brilliant. Things change for her when she meets and starts dating fellow researcher Calvin Evans, another "odd duck" among the researchers there. Still, they complement each other and their life seems to go well until something unspeakable happens. Later, Elizabeth starts working on TV for a cooking show and she only agrees if he can say what she wants, namely using chemistry formulas and information, to instruct the ladies who are the target of the show. Will Elizabeth be able to fulfill her deserved dreams this way or could it be that there is something else for her out there?

This is an historical book about gender prejudice and so many other debatable issues, several of which we still observe nowadays in our contemporary and "modern" society, but I think I' have liked the story to focus more on one or other element: or the historical aspect, making it a bit more realistic - even with all her abilities, Elizabeth seemed to be a more modern woman than one living in the 60s, except when she was prejudiced and harmed because she was a woman in a world of men - or on the comedy side, whish offers the reader plenty of cute scenes.

I suppose there's an obvious difference between tone and content here and while this is certainly viable to be done, I'm not certain it always worked out completely to me. The change was often too jarring from one terrible situation to one meant to be funny. I also think the author introduced too many convenient scenes at key moments, perhaps to better enhance the odd aspect of sometimes things happening when we least expect or when everything would not suggest it, and while this can be seen as tactic to convey serendipity or a comedy of errors, I wasn't always a fan of the result.

My favorite part of the book was when Elizabeth started to work as a TV host. I think this part of the novel was well done, interesting and addictive and I loved how the character's quirky traits and cleverness were easy to show. It's clearly an unlikely possibility in real life for a woman in the 60s to have done so, but I enjoyed this tremendously, it was funny, entertaining and a way for Elizabeth to share her knowledge and abilities in chemistry to a vast audience. I also liked the message behind it, woman adhere to a social status but that doesn't mean they can't learn or feel they have that right while doing something taken for granted, like dinner.

This is a cute story, serious and funny and with a lot of interesting content and some character development. I did have a wonderful time reading but it seemed part of the goal or the message intended might have been lost by some of the scenes used. For the most part, I could ignore the little issues because Elizabeth is fascinating as is everything she does and aims for. There is a lot to like about this novel but I must say there is also a fair share of tragedy and unfair situations... of course, some of these are treated among a comedy environment and the reader must be in the right state of mind or focus in order to believe/care about what it means.

I don't want to give spoilers but there are things that annoyed me, made me mad, others weren't as touching as I assume they were meant to be... I can't tell if it's because of the writing style or just the author's choices... I think it would be nice to have a sequel of this story, perhaps a few years in the future... or, I'll wait for another book by the author to simply compare.

Anyway, this is a very readable book, engrossing and I think many readers will like the more fictional elements of it. The setting is mostly the 60s, but I struggle to label this as an historical, except for that. It reads more like any other fictional story than what one would truly expect from an historical novel, so... looking at how the book is publicized and the colorful colors and the supposed hilarious scenes, I think expectations should be considered.
Grade: 7/10

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