Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

I’m nervous when I read a novel recommended to me or on the best-seller list.   I’m worried I won’t get it, fretting why I haven’t, and wary of admitting that it wasn’t for me.  It’s pathetic that my insecurities should influence a book review.  Moreover, my sister recommended Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, and I didn’t want to offend her.  But I shouldn’t have panicked; this was a brilliantly comic and fascinating insight into the life of women in the 1960s. 

            The book starts with Elizabeth Zott, a 30-year-old single mother, the harassed star of an evening TV cooking show, fed up because she can’t conduct scientific research due to being a woman.   Elizabeth is a brilliant scientist whose career has been stymied by misogyny and sexual assault, which curtailed her chance to complete her PhD.     The book moves back over ten years to reveal Elizabeth’s tale, her relationship with ungainly Calvin Evans, an academic of world renown.  Their relationship becomes the catalyst for Elizabeth becoming a rower, dog owner and provides the twists in the narrative.

The humour and drama unfold with beautifully crafted prose.  Garmus subtly moves the point of view, especially with the dog, Six Thirty, who provides a profound and caring commentary.  The story arc is magnificent, and the reader cares little for the geometric patterns that ensure an optimistic and ‘happy’ ending.  Some of the foreshadowing is so well done that it adds to the readers’ satisfaction when the circle is complete.  However, a totemic event drives the narrative, which, while predictable, is nonetheless distressing.  Garmus had me so invested in Elizabeth and the characters within ten chapters that I was so moved that I couldn’t read any more of the book for a day.  Garmus manages to make rowing, TV cooking shows and science exciting and humorous, which is a feat.  However, combining Elizabeth and Calvin’s depressing, dysfunctional childhoods and showing the horrendous sexism encountered make it an achievement.  All the while moving the reader whilst roaring with laughter out loud.

However, it is the characterisation of Elizabeth that is multilayered.  Her refusal to compromise her views, opinions, or science was inspiring and had a message for all.  It’s sometimes too easy to take the easy option and conform to keep things quiet.  But not for Elizabeth. Her single-mindedness is the triumph of the book. 

Some might think this is a historical novel.  It’s not, the sexism and misogyny live on.  My daughter experienced this in the last few years while completing her master’s and doctorate.  She experienced a professor at a prestigious university who would call male students after a female had proffered an opinion.  Horrendous ‘man explaining’ alive and kicking in the 2020s.  Nor should we forget that this is not fiction but a writing of truth.  It was an environment that my mother experienced during the same time.  Ironically, a theme I tried to tackle in a short story earlier this year, albeit not with the wit or aplomb of Bonnie Garmus. Luncheon is produced below.

If you don’t read this novel, you’ve missed out on a life-affirming experience.  It made me laugh, cry, rejoice and think deeply about the issues that still face society.  Read it, you’ll not be disappointed.  


Everything had to be just so.  Prue knew that his shirts had to be pressed with starch.  His pin-striped suits and bowler hat brushed and hung up.  Appearance matters, he’d say.  He had inherited all these airs and graces from his national service. Too late for war, but a stint in Singapore had made him a stickler for neatness, cleanliness and appearance. Not that he ever helped out thought Prue. She loathed his persnicketiness but it was a ritual that she endured; that’s what dutiful wives did.  But she longed to escape the straight jacket.  The phone rang, the bell echoing. She turned off the radio, the popular tune cut mid flow, shrouding the home in the hushed respect of a funeral home.

            ‘Mrs Cameron?’ said a cultured voice.

            Prue knew it was his secretary.

            ‘Mr Cameron wants to let you know two extra people will be for luncheon today.’

            ‘Excellent,’ she said.

            But it was a problem; she didn’t have much brisket.  At least she could water down the soup and give extra portions of apple pie and custard to eke it out.  She glanced at the hexagonal black roman numeral clock in the hall and sighed; she’d make do as always.  She returned to the table, its iridescent white linen reflecting the sunlight from the bay windows.  The floral curtains of roses flecked on the rich Axminister & Wilton carpet.  She paused and mentally checked the layout: soup spoon, knife and fork, a dessert spoon, and a side plate with a butter knife. The napkins folded like origami; they were angular, rigid, and taunt, much like she felt.  Today was the day that she was going to tell him.  She’d put it off long enough.

            He rang the doorbell at twelve forty-five even though the door was open.  She met him in a dress and was made up.  The Scotsman and The Times lay untouched on the table in the hall waiting for his arrival. A three-course meal was expected; he’d make it known if it didn’t meet his standards.  Piping hot soup and freshly made rolls, a main course and a stodgy pudding.  All eaten in thirty minutes.  It was a dinner service, but it felt more like a regime.  Prue hated the pressure of having a cooked lunch ready.

            ‘We’ve had a busy morning in the office, and we’re hungry,’ he said, scanning the table layout and the dining room’s tidiness. As usual, he talked to her, never asking about her morning or the children.

It was stifling, so she planned to talk to him today.  She knew what married life in middle-class Edinburgh was like.  She’d craved that recognition and status, and for a while, no longer working as a nurse had felt liberating, but it soon became a prison and a life sentence when the children were born.  It was as if her being was merged into the foundations of the house, the chores, and her duties to her husband.   Mondays, she baked, and on Wednesdays, she cleaned the brass and changed the beds; it was all mapped out.

She escaped twice a week. On Tuesdays and Fridays, it was a sprint down to Leith library to take out and return three books.  She dropped the children off at school and raced to browse for two hours, selecting her next adventures.  The quiet beauty of the domed reading room encased in wood panelling provided sanctuary.  She knew the librarians, many of whom were women, and she longed to have a job like them.  They put books aside for her. 

Sometimes, out of the gaze of her husband, she would have a coffee with some of them on their break at the Italian coffee house opposite.  It was like she was being flirtatious, daring, and rebellious.  And that’s when it happened.

‘Prue,’ said a deep but familiar voice. She turned.

‘Oh, Dr Anderson,’ she replied.

‘I thought it was you.  You’re looking well.  I hear you’ve three youngsters now,’ he beamed.  He was a towering figure in his fifties, cast in an unkempt white beard with a formal tweed suit laced with pipe tobacco.  She’d worked for him during and after her training.

‘And you’re a head surgical consultant at Leith Hospital now,’ she smiled.

‘It’s very fortuitous that I have met you today,’ he said, sitting at their table,’ because I’m looking for a nurse for my morning clinic on Thursdays.  Are you interested?’

‘I’ve got the children; I don’t think I’ll have the time,’ she replied, her face revealing her interest.

‘It’s only one day a week, about four hours.  Think about it; come and see me next week, and we can sort something out,’ he said as he rose and bade farewell to her and the librarians.

Prue visited the hospital the following week and accepted the job. 

‘That was a wonderful meal, Prue,’ said the businessman as she cleared the dishes from the table.

‘Not just a pretty face,’ laughed her husband, ‘she can cook as well.’ 

Prue buried her eyes in the sink as she washed the plates.  After coffee, they walked the guests to the door and watched them drive away.  It was now or never.  She fixed a gaze at her husband.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.

‘Nothing. I need to tell you something.’

‘Can it wait until tonight? I need to get back to the office,’ he said squeezing his fingers into his waistcoat and pulling out his pocket watch. He glanced at the dial.

‘No,’ said Prue, her hands held tight as if they were a lynchpin keeping her together. They returned to the dining room.

‘Well?’ he said, his tone impatient.

‘I’ve been offered a part-time job at Dr Anderson’s clinic at Leith Hospital on Thursday mornings.’

‘What?’ he interrupted, ‘Dr Anderson, where did you meet him?’

‘At Lannie’s Cafe beside the library. I bumped into him, but that doesn’t…’

‘What were you doing there?’ interrupted her husband.

‘Please,’ she said exasperated, gasping to finish a sentence, ‘I start working for him tomorrow.  It’s from nine to one on Thursdays,’ she enthused, trying to catch his eyes and calm him down.

‘When did you think you were going to tell me?’

‘I was going too, but I knew you would react like this.’

‘Who will look after the kids, and what about my lunch?’

‘The kids will be dropped off early at school, and I will leave you a salad or a meal to heat through, or you could take lunch at the Windsor Bar. It’s only one day a week,’ she replied in monotone.

‘No wife of mine,’ he slammed his hand on the table,’ is going to work.  You’re my wife, we don’t need the money.’

Prue shuddered and stepped back. 

‘But it’s a bit of independence for me. Besides, I want to nurse again.  I’m not going to be tied to this house forever.  It’s a start,’ she replied, her voice hardening. 

‘No wife of mine will be off galivanting and carrying on,’ he snarled, turning and thrusting his jacket on over his waistcoat.

She was silent.  Finally, his anger ran out of breath, and he disappeared into the hall.

‘Is that Dr Anderson,’ she heard him saying,’ there seems to have been a misunderstanding. Prue will not be starting work with you tomorrow.’

Prue slumped onto a chair, tears rolling down her face, and glanced at the clock.  It was two twenty-five, and the thud of the front door slamming ended another luncheon in the Cameron household.