Content warnings for Lessons in Chemistry: sexual assault, sexual harassment, death, grief, death of a loved one, car crash, suicide, mentions of homophobia, references to child sexual abuse, bombs
One of the top books this summer was “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 18 weeks (having only been out for 24) and is being made into a TV show starring Brie Larson.
“Lessons in Chemistry” follows chemist Elizabeth Zott. As the only female chemist in her lab in the 1960s, she fails to gain proper respect or recognition for her work, except by one Calvin Evans, another genius chemist and the love of her life. But when Calvin unexpectedly dies, Elizabeth is left to raise their daughter on her own. A few years later, forced to make ends meet, she agrees to become the host of a cooking show. Before she knows it, her unusual approach to cooking turns her into a nationwide sensation.
“Lessons in Chemistry” is, if nothing else, entertaining. Garmus clearly knows how to craft a story, from charming characters to emotional hits. Alternating between witty and gut-wrenching, the prose is as sharp as one of Elizabeth’s knives. I frequently found myself laughing at the wry humor imbued in the pages, and feeling Elizabeth’s pain right along with her.
But while “Lessons in Chemistry” is certainly a great story, its attempts to be more fell flat. Garmus was clearly attempting to write social commentary about the experiences of women in the scientific community. And while the struggles that Elizabeth faces were and still are felt in the chemistry labs and beyond, Garmus repeatedly undercut her own messaging.
The fact that Elizabeth is so clearly, utterly exceptional makes the story less compelling than if she had been a smart woman, but not necessarily a genius. Although Elizabeth is not the only woman in this story with ambition, she is the only one exceptional enough to pursue her ambition without any assistance. Side characters will eventually fight for what they want, but only after being inspired by Elizabeth. Despite Elizabeth’s stance that your average woman deserves to be taken seriously, “Lessons in Chemistry” venerates the exceptional, not the average, woman.
Moreover, too frequently, women’s interactions traced back to men. They were either bonding over their shared grief for the loss of a man or the misogyny they had faced. I think the book gave Calvin too much time, but it definitely gave him more credit than he deserved. He respected Elizabeth’s ability to do chemistry, but frequently failed to respect her other wishes. On the flip side, he is portrayed as an incredibly exceptional man in terms of his genius and his respect for women. The way he is praised by both Elizabeth and the novel conveys that only truly exceptional men have the capacity to respect women, while also telling us we need to praise men for doing the bare minimum.
I certainly think “Lessons in Chemistry” is worth the read for those interested in this topic. I truly enjoyed reading it. However, I also think it is worth critiquing the precarious version of feminism it had to offer.