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Lessons in Chemistry


Hello Fellow Readers. This is Jennifer Kassebaum, Owner of Flint Hills Books in Council Grove, Kansas for the High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club.

One of my favorite books this summer is LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, a debut novel by Bonnie Garmus. I admit that I enjoy a book with a sense of humor, and LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY is witty and smart.

The book is set in the 1950s through the 1960s. The protagonist of the book is Elizabeth Zott. All Elizabeth wants to do is to be a chemist. She just wants to be a chemist. But it is America in the 1950s and what is a woman scientist to do – in an era when women were sidelined and subordinate, nearly always. There is a trigger scene with her major professor if that gives you a clue.

But this is a woman who is determined to be a chemist. She will not be deterred. In the opening chapters, Garmus describes Elizabeth: “Once a research chemist, Elizabeth Zott was a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who is not average and never would be.” I love that Elizabeth Zott, at a critical point in her life, turns her kitchen into a laboratory. THAT is how much being a scientist means to her. LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY is the sometimes fun, sometimes sad, always entertaining story of Elizabeth’s life.

Like many women who desire a career, Elizabeth also falls in love. Unlike most women of that era, Elizabeth does not want to marry. The man she falls in love with is Calvin Evans, the prize-winning premier chemist of the day – who also works at Hastings Research Institute and who happens to be wise enough to fall in love with Elizabeth Zott. Calvin is a competitive rower – competitive with a Capital C – and so we learn a great deal about rowing in this story – and it is all for the good because, it turns out, rowing is a lot like life. Elizabeth and Calvin’s life together is shared by Elizabeth’s dog, Six Thirty, who is – as he should be - an important character in this book.

I do not want to reveal the plot – which is somewhat nonlinear but never confusing - so will just offer a list of the cast of characters in this delightful novel. There is Walter Pine, whom we meet early in the book and who becomes a major figure in Elizabeth’s life. There is Elizabeth’s daughter, Madeline, who is a delight. There is Elizabeth’s friend Harriet Sloan, who provides invaluable advice and friendship. There is Miss Frask, who is the “too cheerful, wide-bottomed secretary from Personnel” who seems to be the exact opposite of Elizabeth but with whom we find, sadly, shares something in common. But as I consider this dull description of the list of characters, I realize it is through Garmus’ deft and delightful pen that these characters are formed into three dimensional characters with distinct personalities who add so much to the story.

This novel reminds me of WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE? which also featured a serious, talented, frustrated woman who was not treated seriously. LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY does have some profanity – not much but a little. Like many of you, I do not enjoy profanity in literature and so I mention it in case your tolerance level is even lower than mine. I have recommended this book to several friends and customers and each has found that the story is uplifting and ultimately satisfying. I hope you enjoy LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY as much as I did.

© 2022 Jennifer Kassebaum

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