Book review: Lessons In Chemistry is a witty tale of a 1960s female scientist

Lessons In Chemistry by the debut London-based novelist Bonnie Garmus is one of the most engaging novels in recent years. PHOTOS: SERENA BOLTON, DOUBLEDAY

Lessons In Chemistry

By Bonnie Garmus
Fiction/Doubleday/Paperback/400 pages/$29.96/Buy here
4 out of 5

"Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself," commands Elizabeth Zott, the brisk, no-nonsense star of the 1960s cooking show, Supper At Six.

In her television show, salt is sodium chloride, vinegar is acetic acid and cooking is a science. Her viewers, a nation of underappreciated American housewives, say they love her because she respects their minds.

Unbeknownst to them, Elizabeth is also a groundbreaking chemist. She was the only woman on the team at the Hastings Research Institute before she was forced to leave and put her dreams on hold.

Lessons In Chemistry by the debut London-based novelist Bonnie Garmus is one of the most engaging novels I have read in recent years. Peppered with wit and humour, it places under the microscope the rampant sexism and sexual harassment that a woman scientist might have faced in the 1950s and 1960s.

Its title alludes to food and science, as well as the romantic and intellectual chemistry shared by Elizabeth and her love interest Calvin, a fellow scientist.

Lessons In Chemistry, whose protagonist refuses to give in to gender stereotypes, hammers home the fact that women should not have to downplay their smarts to be liked or accepted. It also suggests that while it might be easy for members of a historically oppressed group - women, for instance - to turn against one another, solidarity can be a very powerful thing.

Despite its heavy themes, the book remains a breezy read and benefits from a cast of entertaining characters - Mad Zott, the precocious daughter Elizabeth raises alone; Six-Thirty the dog; neighbour Harriet Sloane and frazzled television producer Walter Pine.

Garmus, a 64-year-old copywriter and creative director, writes with flair and an eye for cinematic detail. This is a novel that reads like it was made for the screen. No surprise, then, that an Apple TV+ adaptation starring Brie Larson is under way.

I read Lessons In Chemistry in one sitting and felt it spark in me a motley of reactions from anger to amusement to sympathy.

Alas, its 400 pages went by all too quickly. When I reached the end, I felt like giving its author the biggest compliment someone might pay a good cook: "This was wonderful, please may I have some more?"

If you like this, read: Chemistry by Weike Wang (Vintage, 2017, $27.37, buy here, borrow here), about an overworked Chinese-American PhD student who does not know what she wants.

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