Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Before Ree Drummond, even before Julia Child, Elizabeth Zott had a cooking show in the 1960s. “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus was highly recommended by several friends. It’s a poignant look at a professional woman’s life in the 1960s.

Elizabeth Zott has a one-track mind with a laser focus on science; chemistry in particular. The male chauvinist climate in the lab is holding her back, so when she has an opportunity to teach chemistry through cooking on an afternoon TV show she takes it.

Garmus infused Zott with a dry wit of which she is wholly ignorant. When she was discussing a particular employee she said, “No surprise. Idiots make it into every company. They tend to interview well.”

Garmus adds a lot of wisdom in her own voice as well. “Every day she [Elizabeth]found parenthood like taking a test for which she had not studied. The questions were daunting and there weren’t nearly enough multiple choice.” 

“Having a baby, Elizabeth realized, was a little like living with a visitor from a distant planet. There was a certain amount of give and take as the visitor learned your ways and you learned theirs, but gradually their ways faded and your ways stuck. Which she found regrettable. Because unlike adults, her visitor never tired of even the smallest discovery; always saw the magic in the extraordinary.” 

I laughed out loud several times during this book, and I cried too. It felt like an honest look at the struggle for women’s rights in the workplace through the eyes of someone who refused to accept the status quo. Was it realistic? Probably not. A realistic look at that time would not be an interesting fiction read. Based on her first book, I would read Bonnie Garmus’ next grocery list. 

Looking back on “Lessons in Chemistry”, I can see Peggy Olson’s struggle to be taken seriously in the TV show Mad Men. This would be a great book group pick, with lots of opportunities for discussion, and foods to bring! You can find this on the new book shelf at the Gering Public Library. 

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