When I read Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, it triggered a memory from the 1970s that I had forgotten about. I was a teenager talking with an aunt, and I asked what her major was in college. She told me she got her M-R-S degree and married my uncle. She then went on to explain that back in the day, women went to college not with the idea of having a career, but finding a man worth marrying. I was horrified.
Garmus clearly did her research on the plights of women in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when society expected women to get married, have children, keep house and watch their figures. The book’s extraordinary protagonist, Elizabeth Zott, has a master’s in chemistry, but is unable to get a university to accept her for PhD work. Equality for women is unheard of in the men’s world she tries to navigate. Although she is brilliant and male chemists constantly seek her help, she receives much lower pay while the men take credit for her work. She also has to fight off sexual advances.
But there is one man who discovers how intelligent she is – Calvin Evans, an equally brilliant chemist who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize several times. The two of them have instant chemistry, and soon live together. He wants to get married, but she wants to keep her own name and just be a couple, something considered scandalous.
When Calvin dies in a freak accident, Elizabeth is bereft, and pregnant. Now she faces raising a daughter on her meager wages as a single parent. When an opportunity arises to host a cooking show called Supper at Six, she takes it. After all, she is a great cook, as cooking is really just chemistry. She teaches housewives in the afternoon chemistry lessons through cooking (add a little H2o, and then some sodium chloride) along with daring them to take risks in their lives and believe in themselves. Her presentations often don’t go over well with management, especially when she pitches a show sponsor’s can of soup in the garbage, calling it full of chemicals.
Elizabeth is one the most memorable characters I’ve encountered recently, with her fierce independence and honesty. The supporting players also are great, and add needed touches of humor. Elizabeth’s daughter, Madeline, is feisty and a young genius. Their endearing dog, Six-Thirty, is delightful when he shares his private observations with the reader.
Lessons in Chemistry shines light on what women endured, and is a good reminder that there still is work to be done. After all, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that women make 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. I can just imagine what Elizabeth Zott would say about that.