Audiobook Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

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Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel–prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with—of all things—her mind. True chemistry results.

But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

Laugh-out-loud funny, shrewdly observant, and studded with a dazzling cast of supporting characters, Lessons in Chemistry is as original and vibrant as its protagonist.

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CW: rape, sexism, mentions of past child abuse, suicide and homophobia.

For the past couple of years atleast, I’ve been of the opinion that I’m quite good at identifying the books I will enjoy and only reading them. This has definitely led to some very good reading years, high rating averages, and deep satisfaction. But mostly getting my book recs from social media and blogs where I follow the kind of people who love reading SFF like me means that sometimes I miss some books outside of those genres which would have been a perfect fit for me. This is one such book whose existence I didn’t even know about until well after it’s release, and only because I made a new friend Shazzie and she raved about it in her review. It’s taken me weeks to get my library copy because i didn’t know how popular it was and how long the waitlists were. But here I am and what an experience this has been.

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I got the audiobook copy before the ebook, so I started listening. And then I couldn’t sleep for whatever reason, so this became my company for the whole night even if I ended up getting a headache after coz of the sleeplessness. I went into it only reading my friend’s review and a couple of others and some idea of the basic premise. I don’t know how exactly it was marketed but that cover is very deceptive. It promises a quirky funny book and it is in parts, but the book is much more intense and bleak and sad at other parts and I’m sure some readers might be thrown off by that whiplash. But the author does a good job balancing all the emotions throughout, making for a very engaging read. We have random POV switches which come at unexpected times, and get perspectives of those I didn’t see coming, which makes for a surprising narrative. And Miranda Raison does a superb job capturing the nuances of every single person (and not person) she is narrating, which makes for an unputdownable listening experience. The pacing can feel slow and dragging in parts and the book maybe a tad bit long, but I think the rest of the story made up for these little shortcomings.

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This is set in the 50s/60s California and while I don’t know much about the times, the setting does feel realistic. And it’s the themes the author explores that stay with you long after you are finished – misogyny, patriarchy, gender discrimination in the work place, motherhood, family, ambition, faith and more. Yes, there are more sexist asshole characters here than the good ones and reading their words and actions will make you angry, but if you think deeply, you realize that not everything has changed in the past 6-7 decades. The gender pay gap still exists, every woman who chooses to be a mother is expected to atleast partially sacrifice her career, women in literally any male dominated field have to navigate sexist work cultures and even inappropriate sexual advances, child rearing is still mostly a mother’s job, the enormous amount of work that goes into maintaining a household is still dismissed as just being an “average housewife”, religions and faith leaders still instruct women to remain in hostile and abusive marriages because god doesn’t condone divorce and think of the husband and children – the list just goes on and there’s all this and more in the book and in our real life and it’s all very rage inducing but also maybe cathartic.

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Because the message of the book is be the change. Our main protagonist Elizabeth suffers blow after blow in both personal and professional lives but she refuses to work within the system or compromise her principles, sticks to her beliefs and remains dedicated to science. The book might feel a bit over the top or preachy at times, especially when Elizabeth goes on her monologues, but they are also very meaningful, and I don’t always mind if the authors are hitting our head with the message instead of being subtle. The author through our character reiterates that women have to look within themselves, understand what they wanna do, and commit to it – we can’t all change many people’s lives like Elizabeth does through her cooking show, but we can try to gather some courage to change our own. I really admired Elizabeth for persevering in being herself, in a world that was determined not to accept her the way she was, and always keeping her original intent close to her heart.

While there are many hateful characters here throwing obstacles in her path, she also manages to find her people, makes her own family, who understand and support her even if they are slightly exasperated at times. Her relationship with her partner Calvin was beautiful and intense and heartbreaking, but it was nice to see them respect each other equally. Their daughter Madeline is a precocious little one who is too observant for her own good, and understands her mother too well. Harriet might start off as a nosy neighbor but the support she provides a new single mother is priceless and I loved seeing her become a part of their family. Walter, Mason, Frask – all were supportive in their own ways, being there without asking, providing support, and sometimes rectifying their mistakes. Not all but atleast a couple of the ego driven sexist bosses get their due here which was also quite satisfying to read about.

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To conclude, this was everything and nothing like I expected. A resilient protagonist, her amazing found family, not quite smashing the patriarchy but atleast trying to – this book is full of tears and joy and strength and support, and quite a few laugh out loud moments as well. Yes, I felt very angry and maybe even helpless while reading it because what have I really done to change my own life, but what I can learn from the book is not to give in to despair and keep hope alive. Can’t wait to see what the author writes next.

5 star
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