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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

In 1994, my first year at uni, I once earnestly raved about feminism to a fellow female hosteller… who quickly became hostile. Through narrowed eyes and barely disguised disdain she replied that couldn’t see the point of being a feminist.

Her response was an eye opener for me, someone who constantly feels grateful for the gains made by our foremothers, and wants to continue capitalising on their hard work - the result of which meant that as a young woman, I could freely attend university and pursue the career of my choice; that I could delay childbirth until I felt ready, or even eschew it completely… If I’d been born in an earlier era, I would’ve gone bonkers.

An era, say, like the one Elizabeth Zott, the heroine of Lessons in Chemistry, inhabits: 1960s America, where women were expected to forgo their careers, wrangle the kids single-handedly, have hair and make-up just so at all times, dutifully dish out dinners for their hard-working husbands and meekly defer to him at all times.

Funnily enough, at the start of the story, Elizabeth feels she is about to go bonkers. At 30 years old, despite her love of science and lack of desire for motherhood, she has somehow become the reluctant star of a television cooking show, of all things, and has a child, born out of wedlock. “[She] felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.”

The tale of how she got to this point will have you in turns feeling pangs for love lost; squirming and indignant as she encounters the various creeps that derail her scientific research and test her resolve; cheering her on as she finds salvation in rowing and unexpected friendships, single-handedly transforms her kitchen into a full-blown laboratory complete with centrifuge and eyewash station… and as she revolutionises housewives across the country thanks to her unconventional approach to presenting Supper at Six.

Revolving seamlessly through time and perspectives, the story teems with terrific characters every bit as engaging as Elizabeth, from Dr Mason, her friendly obstetrician who ropes her onto his rowing team, to Walter Pine, the supportive boss who finds Elizabeth’s presence jolting him from his Afternoon Depression Zone, to her precocious daughter, who she has accidentally named Mad. Also notable is Elizabeth’s loyal and intelligent dog, Six-Thirty, who lets us in on his thoughts. That may sound faintly ridiculous at best, downright weird at worst, but I promise, it absolutely works.

The dialogue crackles; the wit is whip-smart and plentiful throughout. Lessons in Chemistry is the kind of book you want to press into people’s hands and urge them to drop everything to read. I hoovered it up. Take a bow, Bonnie Garmus. This is a heck of a debut novel, as powerful and life-affirming as its main character; so vivid in my mind she feels real.

Reviewer: Stacey Anyan

Penguin Random House


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