Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist of Lessons In Chemistry, is a literary heroine for the ages. In early 1960s America- an America that had yet to feel the full force of the feminist movement-Zott stands as a vanguard. A reluctant television personality with a super-successful cooking show, Zott would just prefer to be recognized as a chemist. She is a highly educated scientist by trade and by passion; her natural habitat, a lab with beakers and bunsen burners. Yet her life is over-burdened with the struggle to be taken seriously. She has been the victim of research theft and workplace harassment, as well as, assault from men in positions of power. In spite of it all, she maintains an unwavering resolve. Because if anyone is up for a challenge- if anyone is willing to take a sledgehammer to patriarchy- it’s Elizabeth Zott.
It’s common knowledge that men are praised for being ambitious. The same cannot be said for the opposite sex. Women with Zott’s drive are often viewed as hard-edged, subversive, and icy. Their professional achievements are questioned and microscopically analyzed. In the case of Zott, and many women like her, the credentials, skills, and intellect are evident. It’s just difficult to find a seat at the table (or lab) when it’s filled with unqualified men. So she’s really left with no choice, but to take her message of female empowerment (as well as, the concepts of ionization and osmosis) to the airwaves. After all, cooking is chemistry. Zott’s national impact is not only unexpected but revolutionary.
It is of the utmost importance to note that Elizabeth Zott is far from icy. She has a history of childhood trauma and abandonment. If one detects coldness it is likely due to tragedy, loss, and a fair share of disappointments. Yet when she loves, she loves deeply. In the beginning of the novel, we learn of Zott’s greatest romance and the consequences stemming from that relationship. Later, there are multiple twists of fate that enable her to cultivate, what I believe to be, a beautifully unique and rich family life, centered around her comically inquisitive daughter, Madeline, and an English-fluent rescue dog called Six-Thirty. Yes, that is, indeed, his name. As a single mother, Zott learns to rely on the help and guidance of others, and as a result increases her circle of loved ones.
In addition to all of her accomplishments, Elizabeth Zott is a dedicated athlete. A rower, with natural acumen, her exercise regime is not only a testament to her physical strength but her emotional resilience. She might be described by some as a “tough cookie.” But I suspect Zott would rightly take umbrage with the use of that terminology.
Lesson In Chemistry is a fabulous novel, and definitely in the running for my favorite novel of 2022. Bonnie Garmus has perfectly captured a moment in time. The avenues of existence that half of the population was excluded from (even more, if you account for race.) The lack of resources and opportunities for women who may have wanted a working life outside of the home. The harassment endured by those women who dared to enter professional spaces dominated by men. Hell, women couldn’t even have credit cards in their own names in the 1960s. As difficult as that is to contemplate, one cannot ignore the fact that still, in 2022, we are far from anything resembling gender equity. But, I’m not without hope that one day we’ll get there. Lessons In Chemistry solidifies that sentiment.
A novel of humor, wit, passion, and provocative commentary, with a profound message and a call to action, Lessons In Chemistry is absolute perfection.
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