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Book review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry – Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday, $ 37.00)

Reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books

Terrible and beautiful things happen to Elizabeth Zott, the fascinating and fearsome protagonist of this highly engaging, clever novel.

It’s the 1950s and Elizabeth is a brilliant chemist, albeit one without the degree she deserved to receive.

In the most distressing scene of the book, close to its beginning, Elizabeth gets her 1950 style comeuppance – that of an intelligent woman working at a higher level than most of her male counterparts and daring to get away with it. This sets up Elizabeth’s struggle and is all too believable.

The novel begins after this event and wends back and forth in time. In the first scene we meet Elizabeth, leaving her home early in the morning, kissing her precocious 4-year-old daughter, Mad, goodbye as she heads out to her day, a day that will culminate in the recording of her hit TV show , Dinner at Six, in which Elizabeth is expected to tone down the chemistry and give the housewives what the male production team think they want: lipstick, smiles, fluff and food to keep the husbands happy.

Mad is well aware that her mother is depressed, and that they are both way outside what society expects from its women.

Elizabeth’s story has it all, a traumatic childhood and a struggle against no ceiling, never mind a glass one. There’s a beautiful integral love story with brilliant scientist Calvin Evans, and the tales of Elizabeth, Calvin and Mad are woven elegantly and knotted together tightly.

These three are the characters who win our hearts, but the peripheral team of Harriet (friend and babysitter), Miss Frask (nemesis), Walter (TV colleague) and Wakely (reverend and much more) serve the purpose of illustrating how humans don ‘ t have to cope alone, even when they feel cast out and at their lowest ebb.

Lessons in Chemistry is ostensibly a novel of a feminist thwarted by injustice, forced into taking on a role she does not want. But it’s so much more than that. It provokes a whole gamut of emotion in the reader: fear, disgust, empathy, sadness and joy, and has many truly funny, inspiring moments. What a great read – I highly recommend it

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