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.