Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus will forever change the way you look at a sharpened number two pencil.

Elizabeth Zott is a wonderful chemist who could easily change the world, if only people would stop mistaking her for a secretary. Set in the midcentury era in the United States, Lessons in Chemistry is a whirlwind of a book that pulls the reader in from the first sentence and doesn’t let go. Garmus expertly weaves wit and humor into this tale so often full of tragedy, leading the reader through a rollercoaster of emotions.

Elizabeth Zott is most known for her role on the popular television show Supper at Six, but she’s not just a TV chef. In fact, she’s not a chef at all. She’s a chemist, explaining the building blocks of chemistry to under-appreciated housewives while teaching them how to make nutritious and fulfilling meals for their families and maybe also teaching them that they, and their dreams, are worthy and valuable.

But she didn’t start her career on a television set. She has a Master’s in Chemistry, and began her work at Hastings Research Institute, where she battled sexism, plagiarism, and an overtly toxic atmosphere daily just so she could continue her work in abiogenesis.

Don’t let the word chemistry in the title or words like abiogenesis discourage you from picking up this book; it is not your high school chemistry class that made you cry in frustration (that wasn’t just me, right?). Here, the chemistry aids the plot in the best way: it adds depth without making the reader’s eyes blur with incomprehensible words and topics. The presence of chemistry in this book is inherent to the character; it’s how she thinks, how she processes the world, and how she finds the determination to persevere despite the great odds stacked against her.

This book is full of unforgettable characters, from the protagonist to secondary characters to individuals you only meet for a scene or two. Main character Elizabeth Zott is fixed in her ways, resolute, resilient, no-nonsense, and yet immensely likable for it. And the dog! The dog named Six-Thirty, whom Elizabeth decides to teach words to see how many he can learn. I don’t want to spoil any plot points by discussing other beloved characters, but just know this book is chock-full of lovable, unforgettable characters. It is the characters just as much as the plot that make this book un-put-down-able, and one that will be highly re-read-able as well.

This is one of those books where the voice perfectly matches the protagonist. This makes reading an immersive experience, as the reader feels like they’re experiencing Elizabeth’s world firsthand despite the third-person narrator. Even scenes without Elizabeth are told in this voice, leading the reader to interpret this new information as Elizabeth would.

This novel swept me off of my feet and transported me back in time to 1960s California. I learned about things I wouldn’t have purposefully sought out, like chemistry and rowing, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. I also experienced, via Elizabeth, the power of female friendship, the rarity of finding someone who views you as an equal, and the importance of standing up for what is right and facing the social consequences head-on.

Like your high school chemistry book, this book might make you cry. But with this novel, the crying will be due to catharsis, deep emotional connections and totally worth it. Unlike the authors of your high school chemistry book, Garmus is sure to make you laugh along the way. Not only that, but you’ll see the world differently and be thoughtfully considering Lessons in Chemistry long after you’ve closed the cover.

Lessons in Chemistry will be available April 5, 2022. Thank you to the author, Doubleday, and NetGalley for the advanced e-copy so that I could share my honest review.

You can preorder Lessons in Chemistry from Bookshop.org here or from Amazon here. Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and Amazon. I will earn a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase.

Content and Trigger Warnings for this book (may contain spoilers) below.

–Spoiler ahead–

Sexual assault, rape, misogyny

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