When people reminisce about America’s “good old days,” they’re often envisioning the idyllic post-World War II period of the 1950s: between V-E Day and the beginning of the Vietnam War, a booming time of power and prosperity. Like a woman-centric “Mad Men,” Bonnie Garmus’ devastating and funny debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, blows the lid off that simplistic myth.
Budding research scientist Elizabeth Zott is brilliant, awkward and laser-focused on her studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, but neither her male colleagues nor the other women on campus take her seriously. Between her beauty and her gender, consensus dictates that Elizabeth should be aiming for an “MRS” degree instead of a Ph.D. in chemistry.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth insists on bucking tradition, thwarting rules both written and unwritten, never allowing her progress to be curtailed by other people’s agendas. As the child of high-level grifters (a dangerous doomsday preacher and a tax cheat), Elizabeth learned how to fend for herself early on. But at UCLA, one man’s unchecked violence and abuse of power derail her plans, a devastating yet all-too-familiar turn of events.
Forced out of the Ph.D. track, Elizabeth takes a position at the Hastings Research Institute, a private lab where she meets like-minded genius Calvin Evans. Calvin has never fit in either, but as a man, he has an easier time of it. Elizabeth and Calvin’s prickly, funny and odd love story leaps off the page. The two are truly soul mates, and their happiness should be ordained, but life and this novel are far more complicated than that. Two awkward nonconformists who keep to themselves can generate a surprising amount of rage from those who demand adherence to the status quo.
When the life that Elizabeth has painstakingly forged goes heartbreakingly off-kilter, Lessons in Chemistry becomes a witty and sharp dramedy about resilience and found families. Elizabeth takes a job as the host of a cooking show that’s steeped in science, and though she never planned to be a mother, her child, Madeline, is a joy, and Elizabeth is uniquely brilliant at mothering. Elizabeth and Madeline (and their dog) find support in unlikely places: Harriet the neighbor steps in to help, and TV producer Walter Pine becomes Elizabeth’s best friend.
The scope of what this iconoclastic woman goes through is breathtaking, from personal losses to unrelenting sexism. Along the winding road, she challenges every hierarchy, rule and system she can. She never tries to fit in, but she couldn’t even if she wanted to, and for a person like this, the social strictures of the 1950s and early ’60s hit especially hard. The Madison Avenue of “Mad Men” looks like easy street compared to Garmus’ Southern California.
Not one moment of Elizabeth’s story rings false; every detail is a well-documented component of the time period yet specific to her experience. Readers won’t be able to get enough of Elizabeth and her makeshift family. Lessons in Chemistry is a story to return to again and again.