Another NetGalley book and one with a lot of hype, like Candice Carty-Williams’ “People Person” which I’ll be reviewing in a couple of days, and, like that novel, well worth the hype. I requested and downloaded it back in December last year but I think I’m doing well to review books in the month they’re published; I have seen a few reviews already that I’m going to go back to now I’ve collected my own thoughts.

Bonnie Garmus – “Lessons in Chemistry”

(15 December 2021)

And then there was the illogical art of female friendship itself, the way it seemed to demand an ability to both keep and reveal secrets using precise timing …

We open with someone called Elizabeth Zott popping handwritten notes into her daughter’s lunch box some time in the 1960s. But Elizabeth isn’t your run-of-the-mill 1960s housewife (and she’d contend there’s no such thing) and her daughter Mad has benefited from a scientific training which has left her a second-generation uncomfortable genius not fitting in well at school. Add in a kindly neighbour whose life they change and a dog called Six Thirty who has an extensive vocabulary but no way to express it (and is still there at the end, phew!), and you’ve got a lovely cast of characters to follow through the book.

Like “The Group”, in fact, this is a bit of a #MeToo book, even though obviously the movement hadn’t been coined when it was set. We follow Elizabeth from school through to university, where her perceived oddness, bluntness and scientific exactness mean she’s a fairly lone soul. She can see the sexism in academia but is powerless to change it (this is illustrated by a pretty shocking scene of assault: this is not a cutesy easy read by any means), and she also finds this when she starts to work in a research institute.

Not keen to have children, who she knows will mess up your career, Elizabeth ends up with Mad but without the love of her life, Calvin, the also probably neurodiverse scientist who sees her scientific but also romantic value. Resourceful to the last, I love that she builds a lab at home out of her kitchen, while pregnant, and then we get lots of details of how she uses that lab as a kitchen.

When she’s on the point of leaving the lab for a second time, driven down by her sexist boss, she’s weirdly headhunted by Walter, a TV producer who needs someone to fill an afternoon slot and thinks she’s just the person to teach the nation’s women how to cook. So she does – but she also teaches the nation’s women how to think, do chemistry and value themselves, while fighting against the expectations from the bosses on how she will comport herself.

Meanwhile, female solidarity builds between both Elizabeth and her former enemy, the HR executive from the research institute and Harriet, the motherly neighbour with a horrible husband. This was a lovely theme and really well done. We can add to these themes a mystery about Calvin’s origins which is unpicked and solved by his resourceful daughter – this novel is packed full of incident but there’s plenty of room for character and it’s a feel-good read (with some wincey bits) that I heartily recommend.

Thank you to Random House for picking me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Lessons in Chemistry” was published on 5 April 2022 and is already being made into a TV series!