Book review: 'Lessons in Chemistry' | The chemistry of cooking

It’s the early 1960s in California and our heroine is an unconventional scientist Elizabeth Zott.

Published: 05th June 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th June 2022 07:01 PM   |  A+A-

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Express News Service

It’s the early 1960s in California and our heroine is an unconventional scientist Elizabeth Zott. A beautiful, intelligent woman at an all-male team in the Hastings Research Institute, she is somewhat of an anomaly. Moreover, when she finds a soulmate in the brilliant Nobel-prize-nominated grudge-holder chemist Calvin Evans, true chemistry ensues. 

They start living together and even get a dog, but Elizabeth has no interest in getting married. However, when Calvin tragically dies in a freak accident, he leaves Elizabeth a parting gift—their unborn child. Pregnant out of wedlock with Calvin’s child, Elizabeth comes under much controversy at the institute, and loses her job. 

On receiving it back, she finds her research study stolen by her boss and published in a science journal under his name—leading her to quit again.  A few years later, she struggles with her role as a single mother to her five-year-old daughter Madeline––a whizkid in her own right. When a local television producer  approaches her to become the host of an afternoon cooking show targeted at the average housewife, Elizabeth is not sure how to pull off the role of an entertaining scientist. Passionately believing that food is the catalyst that “unlocks our brains, binds our families, and determines our futures,” she begins teaching the nation how to make food that matters. 

For Elizabeth, cooking was not some preordained feminine duty––it was chemistry. By using examples of chemistry in her show, she connects them with life, particularly that of women.  “Cooking is chemistry, and chemistry is life,” she tells her viewers. Her unusual approach to cooking becomes a kind of a lesson in life, and speaks to women every- where. It becomes revolutionary and creates history––because not only does she teach women how to cook, she also dares them to change the status quo. In no time, ‘Supper at Six’ becomes America’s most beloved cooking show, and has the entire nation taking down furious notes, making calls, posting fan mail and lining up for studio audiences.

While the show encourages people to think sensibly—beyond cultural simplicity and learned societal behaviour—what also works in its favour is the fact that Elizabeth says exactly what she thinks. Sponsors compete to be a part of the show, and various newspaper and magazine reporters want to interview her. Most of all, the show celebrates women and their unsung roles as homemakers, which is why its popularity soars higher than ever. 

Amidst the letters of support, however, there are also a few complaints. In 1960, if someone went on television saying that they did not believe in God, it was asking for pure trouble—which is what Elizabeth does, and soon there are threats from sponsors and viewers alike.  An entertaining read, Lessons in Chemistry, is the debut novel of London- based copywriter/creative director Bonnie Garmus.

The book’s prose is peppered with a number of reminders of the women’s liberation movement as well as cultural stereotypes of the time, thus drawing a distinct picture of the quaint 1960s era. Having herself worked widely in the fields of technology, medicine and education, Garmus also highlights the plight of women who worked in STEM fields during the time, often becoming victims of unequal discrimination, exploitation, harassment and workplace politics.

Book: Lessons in Chemistry
By: Bonnie Garmus
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 390
Price: Rs 699


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