Fiction – paperback; Doubleday; 390pp; 2022.
I tend to avoid over-hyped books, particularly if they clutter up my social media feeds, which is why I had decided, rightly or wrongly, that Bonnie Garmus’ Lessons in Chemistry was NOT A BOOK FOR ME. (Yes, the capital letters are important.)
And then I saw Brona’s persuasive review and borrowed the book from the library. I ate it up in a couple of days and realised I’d been wrong to cast judgement based on over-exposure to other people’s enthusiasm when I hadn’t even read the novel myself.
It’s a compelling, fast-paced story set in 1950s America about a female chemist who falls in love with another chemist but because he is famous and successful everyone assumes she’s riding on his coattails. Later, when she accidentally falls pregnant, she is sacked. After the birth of her daughter, she reinvents herself as a TV chef, who inspires women across America to find their true calling and pursue it.
Unfortunately, it wears its feminist agenda too heavily on its sleeve (it’s written with a modern mindset that would have been out of place at the time the book is set) and features some irritating quirky elements, such as an anthropomorphised dog and a precocious, super-intelligent child, but I had a fun time reading it anyway. It’s an enjoyable romp, full of comic moments, great characters and a delightful plot, the type of book to get you out of a reading slump or keep you company on a rainy day.
And yet, it deals with some dark subject matter, including the theft of women’s academic work and systematic misogyny, rape and sexual assault (in the workplace), but it never dwells on these: they are presented as fait accompli, just something that the average woman in 1950s America has to put up with if she flouts societal obligations and expectations, which are limited to running a home and raising children.
[…] she only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.
Along with the constant commentary about how difficult it is for women — in this case lead character Elizabeth Zott — to be taken seriously outside of the home, it’s littered with witty one-liners to add a level of “sass” and impudence (which I, for one, appreciated). Here’s an example:
Like so many undesirable men, Mr Sloane truly believed other women found him attractive. Harriet [his wife] had no idea where that specific brand of self-confidence came from. Because while stupid people may not know they’re stupid because they’re stupid, surely unattractive people must know they’re unattractive because of mirrors.
The word that best springs to mind to describe Lessons in Chemistry is “hyperreal”. Everything seems slightly exaggerated – the dialogue, the tone of voice, the setting, and the ridiculous nature of the TV cooking show hosted by a woman who uses chemical names for ingredients.
It feels like something dreamed up by author Anne Tyler, the creator of the period drama series Mad Men and film-maker Wes Anderson. But it’s a winning combination. I can’t wait for the TV adaptation coming later this year…