Thursday, May 12, 2022

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry is the book I’ve been dreaming of since I finished Katherine Heiny’s Early Morning Riser last year. It’s just the quirky, wry, sharp, complex story we all need when the world seems both chaotic and frightening. When I was reading Lessons in Chemistry, I laughed out loud, I cheered on the protagonist, and as the book ended, I sighed over how little progress women have made since the 1960s.

The novel takes place primarily in the 1960s when Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist blacklisted from getting a Ph.D. after being sexually assaulted, takes a job at Hastings, a private lab, and meets Calvin Evans, the lab’s most prominent chemist. They fall deeply in love and she moves into Calvin’s home. They’re ecstatically happy together when Calvin dies in a freak accident. Elizabeth soon learns that she’s pregnant and the lab’s director fires her. Desperate for money to support herself and her baby, Elizabeth takes a job hosting Supper at Six, a TV cooking show. She isn’t happy, but the ratings are good so she makes more money than she did as a chemist. She closes each show with “Children, set the table, your mother needs a moment to herself.”

She had wanted to continue her research in abiogenesis, but Donatti, the director of Chemistry at Hastings, hated her and despite funding for her passion, he didn’t want her around. Garmus’s treatment of characters like Donatti showcases both the novel’s comedic sense and the depiction of the times: 

“Elizabeth Zott. He didn’t like Zott. She was pushy, smart, opinionated. Worse, she had terrible taste in men. Unlike so many others, though, he did not find Zott attractive. He glanced down at a silver-framed photograph of his family: three big-eared boys bracketed by the sharp-beaked Edith and himself. He and Edith were a team the way couples were meant to be a team—not by sharing hobbies like rowing for fuck’s sake—but in the way their sexes deemed socially and physically appropriate. He brought home the bacon; she pumped out the babies. It was a normal, productive, God-approved marriage. Did he sleep with other women? What a question. Didn’t everyone?”

Bonnie Garmus makes Elizabeth Zott, her daughter, her dog, her neighbor, and every single character in this novel come alive. The novel celebrates smart women and girls with humor while showing how good men also make a difference. Calvin’s childhood secrets and the mysterious foundation funding Hastings offer subplots that keep the action moving in this propulsive page-turner. Everything in the universe seems to be conspiring against Elizabeth, yet she triumphs and that my friends is exactly what we need to see and salute in this strange world that seems to be working to reduce women’s rights. 

Summing it Up: Read Lessons in Chemistry for a fast-paced, character-driven tale that’s long on humor and filled with wisdom and nuance. Chuckle as the gifted Elizabeth refuses to act dumb to get ahead and cheer as the bad guys get their comeuppance. Smile at Elizabeth’s brilliant, protective dog and celebrate authors like Bonnie Garmus.

Rating: 5 Stars

Publication Date: April 5, 2022

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Dessert, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Sushi, Book Club

Author Website:

Read an Excerpt:

What Others Are Saying: 

Kirkus Reviews:

New York Times:

Publishers Weekly:

A book that sparks joy with every page. . . It had me laughing one minute and air-punching the next. Elizabeth Day, author of “How to Fail”

“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 ... becomes a witty and sharp dramedy about resilience and found families ... The scope of what this iconoclastic woman goes through is breathtaking ... 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.” —Bookpage

Saturday, May 7, 2022

What Kind of Mother?

Mothers come in all shapes and sizes. There are “Hallmark” card mothers who resemble moms in 1950s sit-coms. There are step-mothers who nurture and women without biological children who make a difference in the lives of many children. These books feature unique forms of what our culture calls “mothering.” 

*The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave is a suspense-filled thriller that’s also a careful pondering of trust, marriage, and family allegiance. Hannah and Owen have been married for a year when he disappears and leaves a note saying Protect her. Hannah knows he’s writing about his 16-year-old daughter Bailey whose mother died when she was four. When the FBI and a U.S. Marshall visit her, Hannah learns that Owen wasn’t who she thought he was. She puts herself in danger to try to learn enough to keep herself and Bailey safe. Great twists in a book I could not put down for a minute. GPR, BC (2021)

*Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir  by Ashley C. Day focuses primarily on
Ford’s childhood and young adulthood as she examines how growing up with her father in prison and her mother unable to give unconditional love because of her own trauma had such a profound effect on Ashley’s life. Her grandmother’s influence helps us see how Ashley survived. The writing is brilliant with lines like: “My earliest memories are sunburnt Polaroids, frozen moments gone blurry at the edges and spotted all down the middle. Then, at four, the pictures become clearer as do the voices within them.” Read this memoir! G/GPR, BC (2021)

+Honor by Thrity Umrigar, Smita left India with her family as a young teen and promised herself she’d never return, but when her closest friend and fellow journalist falls ill and can’t tell the story of Meena, a Hindu woman attacked by her family for marrying a Muslim man, Smita feels compelled to return to write the story. Meena and her daughter Abru captured my heart with the horrors of their lives plus the way the treatment of women and anyone a group deems “other” is beautifully, but tragically, told. I can’t think of another author who consistently makes readers bear witness to those treated as less than human as well as Umrigar does and also did in her magnum opus The Space Between Us. This novel will break your heart in a good way, GPR/SN, BC

*Untamed by Glennon Doyle, Doyle was a best-selling Christian author known for her bravery and openness in sharing her marital and substance-abuse struggles when she announced that she’d fallen in love with soccer star Abby Wambach. Read her story for sentences like “Being fully human is not about feeling happy, it’s about feeling everything.” Her insights on control and trusting our instincts feel right because she presents them with courage and honesty. She also shows that a woman can’t be a good parent if she isn’t true to herself. GPR/SF, BC (2021)

*Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara is a compelling and insightful mystery wrapped in a historical fiction novel set primarily in 1944 Chicago. I lived within two blocks of the intersection noted in the title in the 1970s and had never heard of a Japanese-American community there. Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from an internment camp in Manzanar, CA, so they follow Aki’s sister Rose to Chicago where she’s killed by a subway train the night before they arrive. When officials say Rose killed herself, Aki can’t believe it could be true, so she investigates and learns of sinister plots and bigotry. I’m hoping for a sequel to this Edgar Award-winning author’s latest that embeds you in the story. GPR/PP/SN, BC (2021) Note: I just learned from the author that there will be a sequel. Evergreen will come out in August, 2023. 

+Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is especially timely after the recently leaked SCOTUS draft on abortion. This novel takes place primarily in 1973 Montgomery, AL, where Civil, a newly graduated Black nurse, works in a federally funded clinic serving poor Black women and girls. When Civil learns that she’s to administer unapproved birth control shots to 11 and 13-year-old girls, she tries to intervene but doesn’t act quickly enough to prevent the girls’ sterilization. The novel also looks at Civil in 2016 when she’s near the end of her career as an OB-GYN who can’t stop thinking about the past despite all she’s done for women and girls. It’s a page-turner that Brit Bennett’s and Tayari Jones’ fans will enjoy. Read it to learn about forced sterilization and horrific medical treatments done to Black women and to grieve what we’ve allowed. GS/PP/SN, BC