Lessons in Chemistry

Written by Bonnie Garmus
Review by Kristen McDermott

Garmus tells a familiar story in a completely original voice in her delightful debut novel. Billed as a cross between The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Mad Men in tone, the narrative follows the up-and-down career of dedicated scientist Elizabeth Zott, whose struggle to be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of chemistry labs in the early 1960s leads her to national fame as a television cooking star.

Zott is an unforgettable protagonist, logical and literal and utterly herself even when up against the horrifying sexism of her chosen profession. However, the novel is told from multiple points of view, including her lover, the equally brilliant chemist Calvin Evans, her precocious daughter Mad, and her heroic canine companion, Six-Thirty, as well as a large cast of supporters and detractors. The plot is complex, full of different ingredients that, like a recipe, seem chaotic until they all come together in the end. The novel deftly mixes comedy and tragedy, with only one very clear villain: the patriarchal culture of mid-20th century America, the days of which are numbered because of women like Zott.

This is historical fiction that takes a witty rather than realistic approach to its subject; for this reason, the ways the plot tends to strain credibility might be a problem for some readers, and the ending definitely feels rushed and over-telegraphed. But for those who admire a confident, bone-dry, and hilarious authorial voice, this novel achieves the difficult task of being both sharply satirical and heartwarming at the same time.