I hope you’re all well. I must admit, the time between Christmas and New Year is always a bit of a blur. I never know what day it is for starters! But it does give me plenty of time to read and relax which I absolutely love.
Anyway, I’m here to review a book I finished this morning. I had my stubborn head on and wouldn’t get up until I finished it. It shows the power of women and how not to take no for an answer. Of course, I’m talking about the incredible Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.
I have to be completely honest, I was worried about reading this. I always am when there’s such a hype around a book. I always find it adds pressure. No one wants to be the person that doesn’t like the book that is currently being raved about. I’ve left enough time and read it in a couple of days. Let’s start there…
What’s it all about?
Elizabeth Zott is a protagonist unlike any other. Fiercely independent, headstrong and someone who doesn’t take any nonsense, Zott knows exactly what she does and doesn’t want.
Her story begins at the end really, providing a lovely circular structure to the novel. It’s 1961 and Elizabeth is miserable, depressed but the star of a nationally beloved cooking show: Supper at Six. All of this kind of happened by accident after Elizabeth stormed in to speak with Walter Pine about his daughter, Amanda, eating her daughter, Madeline (Mad’s) lunch.
Rewind to 1952, Elizabeth is a chemist at the Hastings Institute. Prior to this, she had been a doctoral candidate at UCLA but this was taken away from her following a sexual assault. It is whilst she’s at Hastings that she meets Calvin Evans. Calvin has everything that she does not: respect, acknowledgement and beakers. They meet after she steals some of his beakers that she needed for her own experiment. Unfortunately, their first meeting wasn’t joyous. In fact, he mistakes her for a secretary, causing great offence. Calvin tries to make it up to her by offering a date but she refuses. Over time, through the pursuit of science, the two begin to work together which leads to them falling madly in love with each other.
“Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun.”
As young lovers do, they share details about their lives. But, despite Calvin repeatedly asking, she refuses to marry him and they also decide to not have any children. Instead, Calvin comes up with the idea of getting a dog. They find a dishevelled but highly intelligent dog and named him Six Thirty, the time he came into their lives.
“Hello, Creature, he transmitted as he pressed his ear into Elizabeth’s belly. It’s me, Six-Thirty. I’m the dog.”
One morning, Calvin takes his usual run but this ends up in tragedy as he slips, bangs his head and dies nearly instantly. Elizabeth is absolutely devastated by the loss and is then completely blindsided by the news of her pregnancy. She is sacked because of this so smashes up her kitchen to turn it into a laboratory and charges other scientists who come to her for information or advice. Harriet Slone, a neighbour from over the road notices that Elizabeth is alone and the two slowly become the closest of friends. She is the one there who helps look after Madeline.
“Every day she found parenthood like taking a test for which she had not studied. The questions were daunting and there wasn’t nearly enough multiple choice.”
After some time and a few bumps in the road (no spoilers!) Elizabeth ends up receiving a phone call from Walter Pine, the same person she rang at the start of the novel, wanting to discuss a potential television show with her. Desperate for an income, Elizabeth reluctantly agrees. However, it isn’t as simple as it seems. There is a distinct clash of ideals; Elizabeth wanting to promote chemistry and get more women into science, the producers wanting her to sex it up a bit. Elizabeth stands firm and refuses to change, much to the admiration of the viewing public. She becomes a popular public figure but she is keen to keep Madeline out of the limelight. This does tend to bring false stories and after a change of history and bitter, jealous people selling their stories, Elizabeth sinks into a depression.
By the end of the novel, the wrongs are all corrected and Elizabeth leaves the television show to pursue her role in chemistry with Madeline, Harriet and all the friends they’ve made along the way. She’s back in a laboratory, where she rightfully belongs.
“Whenever you feel afraid, just remember. Courage is the root of change – and change is what we’re chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge. No more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others’ opinions of what you can and cannot achieve. And no more allowing anyone to pigeonhole you into useless categories of sex, race, economic status, and religion. Do not allow your talents to lie dormant, ladies. Design your own future. When you go home today, ask yourself what YOU will change. And then get started.”
There are so many strands to this novel that inevitably and purposely I’ve missed many details out. BUT, I didn’t want to spoil a thing for any potential readers. There’s so much to learn about Calvin and Elizabeth. We see Madeline grow and develop her own personality. It’s just so good for so many reasons.
I love Elizabeth and I admire the way she shows motherhood. I also loved the relationship between her and Calvin. I was bitterly disappointed when he died but it was crucial to the story. After all, it’s not about him, this was all about Elizabeth. I totally understand why this book has won so many awards and so many accolades. It is fantastic for so many reasons: character development, setting, themes, morals, motherhood, relationships and the significance of pets. I really, really enjoyed it. I’m so grateful I managed to get a signed copy and one with sprayed edges. It makes this book even more perfect.
See you next time! Nearly time for 2023 and a roundup of this years reading!
Big love xxx