Brief Thoughts on Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus: Lessons in Chemistry

I’d almost forgotten I had reserved this book from the library, as it took so long for it to become available. I also have to return it quickly, as there are 20 reservations on it! So it would be fair to say that it was one of the ‘buzziest’ titles published in 2021, a magnificent feat for an author in her 60s. I usually avoid hyped books like the plague, but I really enjoyed this one and gulped it down in a day. I won’t write a full-length review, however, because (a) I don’t have the time; (b) it clearly doesn’t need my approval to sell bucketloads. But here are a few observations and quotes, to give you a taste of it.

  1. The cover is a bit misleading – all cosy 1950s domestic scenes like in Rockwell paintings. Although the ending of the book is perhaps a bit Disney and wishful thinking, the book as a whole is much darker than I was expecting. Also, I couldn’t help thinking that it was highly unlikely that America would ever whole-heartedly embrace Elizabeth Zott (even with the small exceptions addressed in the book, particularly the religious beliefs aspects). Not when you see the ridiculous divisive debates going on there in the present day – and remember that this is set in the McCarthy era.
  2. I’m getting a little bit tired of the ‘quirky’ protagonist who lacks social skills and is perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum. There has been a spate of such books lately (the four I recently reviewed for January in Japan can be said to fall into this category) – but it can be well done and badly done. In Nita Prose’s The Maid, I felt we were laughing too much AT the main character, while in this case, I feel Elizabeth Zott inspires admiration rather than pity.
  3. I’ve already mentioned the rather too neat and satisfying ending, but perhaps it would be wrong to call this the Disneyfication of a story. Perhaps the story more closely resembles Charles Dickens – pile a lot of suffering and constant battles onto your heroine, and then somehow find a solution. As in Dickens, we have a lot of secondary characters we can have fun with, not least a super-intelligent dog called Six-Thirty. Actually, what this book reminded me most of was the Japanese anime (and manga) series ‘Spy x Family’, which is charming and funny, but also contains some high-stakes Cold War issues (albeit toned down for a young audience).
  4. There is a lot of feminine anger in this book, as much as in some other books that I’ve read recently, but presented in a palatable way, injected with lots of humour and with a whiff of magical realism. Perhaps, as with the film ‘Hidden Figures’, the beautifully recreated 1959s/60s setting helps to make it seem like a charming ‘period piece’, and thus muffles the cries of anger? For what could we possibly have to be angry about in the present day?
  5. You can see that Bonnie Garmus has worked as a copywriter and speechwriter – her style is breezy, her sentences perfectly tuned and always veering off into the unexpcted, this will keep you reading as if it were a suspense novel, even when you think you know where it’s going. Don’t overthink it, just enjoy!

Yes, living with Mr Sloane was revolting, but Harriet was not completely repelled by his physical defects – she shed herself. Rather, it was his low-grade stupidiy she abhorred – his dull, opinionated, know-nothing charmless complexion; his ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, insensitivity; and above all, his wholly undeserved faith in himself. Like most stupid people, Mr Sloane wasn’t smart enough to know just how stupid he was.

Yet here she was, a single mother, the lead scientist on what had to be the most unscientific experiment of all time: the raising of another human being. Every day she found parenthood like taking a test for which she had not studied. The questions were daunting and there wasn’t nearly enough multiple choice. Occasionally she woke up damp with sweat, having imagined a knock at the door and some sort of authority figure with an empty bab-sized basekt saying: “We’ve just reviewed your last parental performance report and there’s really no nice way to put this. You’re fired.”

She only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.

23 thoughts on “Brief Thoughts on Lessons in Chemistry”

  1. This is such an insightful review. Really picks up on some of the uncomfortable tensions in this book. Like you, I read it very quickly, really enjoyed it but some of this stuff did bother me.

    1. Yes, it was enjoyable but problematic at times. I do wonder how much it was changed for publication to make it more ‘consumable’ or ‘commercial’.

  2. One of my book-group friends adored this novel, her favourite read from last year. Lovely to hear how much you enjoyed it too, book that clearly lives up to all the hype!

    1. Well, I am more ambivalent about it, but… I enjoyed it more than I expected, agree that it is well-written, and with a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

  3. Your ‘don’t overthink it’ comment is a helpful observation. I’ll probably read it out of curiosity but with expectations tempered by past experience with overly hyped titles.

    1. The fact that it captured the public imagination says something about the subject matter still being on point… albeit garnished in a presentable way rather than an essay. I thought the same about Gone Girl – it touched a nerve, although perhaps it was received at quite a superficial, thrillerish level.

  4. It sounds punchy in the way that does often go hand in hand with commercial success. I might give this one a miss even though it sounds pleasant enough!

  5. I keep hearing about this one, Marina Sofia. Like you, I generally avoid ‘hyped’ books, as they seldom live up to it all. This sounds well written, and from what I’ve heard, the wit is well crafted. Perhaps this time there really is a bit to that hype?

  6. I like this way of presenting a review Marina – may pinch it if the mood takes me! Like you I’ve seen this one hyped and have been tempted but have held back. So often I’m disappointed but this does sound like it’s got quite a lot going for it!

    1. Well, I wasn’t trying to be innovative in format, I just had some thoughts or concerns or themes coalescing while I was reading… but I suspect my readers will have to get used to this approach, as I will have less and less time to do lengthy reviews.

  7. Thank you for this review – I’ve been in two minds about whether to pick this up – the hype pulling me in both ways! I think I’m now on the more intrigued side after reading some of these observations, so I’ve reserved it at my library.

    1. Certainly makes for a good read in-between ‘heavier’ works, although it isn’t fluffy. It contains some quite gruelling passages (rape, for instance), which I was certainly not expecting.

  8. I picked this up on the promise it would be funny. Now the first half I didn’t find funny. The treatment of Elizabeth wasn’t humorous. I did enjoy the second half a lot more and I think if I’d not known anything about it before I read it, my expectations wouldn’t have been as much as they were (being the mood reader that I am).

    1. Yes, I was equally shocked by the ‘not funny’ elements of the first half or so. I think it is smartly written – with a teeth-clenched kind of humour – and then it gets more fairy-tale like.

    1. I’d recommend it, despite a few reservations – it is a read that should appeal to women because they will understand the anger beneath the humour. It isn’t as cosy as the covers would have you believe.

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