March Book Club notes:
Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus
Elizabeth Zott is a research chemist who devotes her life to studying Abiogenesis, the idea that life arose from non-life and that these first life-forms begin life in a simple way, gradually becoming increasingly complex. I wondered whether this was the nub of Bonnie Garmus’ idea? That the key characters in her book all begin life with difficult, unpromising beginnings but gradually they find happiness – emotionally and professionally.
Set in 1960s America, Elizabeth battles against a patriarchal society which prevents her getting a Doctorate, subjects her to sexual abuse, takes her ideas and publishes them. Her life partner, Calvin, begins his life in a Catholic orphanage (non-life) and becomes a Nobel Prize Winning Chemist, who mistakes Elizabeth for a Secretary, falls in love with her brain, and leaves her pregnant with a dog who also comes from questionable beginnings (there’s more to it, but I won’t give too many spoilers!). Elizabeth doesn’t want a baby (non-life?) but becomes a happy and devoted single Mother with a need to support her child. This she does by hosting a TV Cookery show which becomes an early piece of feminist TV inspiring women – and their children - and turning her into an unwilling household name.
Sounds bleak? Sad? Certainly it is both, but overall Lessons in Chemistry is very funny – a feel-good read despite being filled with tragedy. One Book Clubber pointed out that the dog (called Six Thirty, with a remarkable intelligence and a voice which we, the reader, hear) takes the brunt of the emotion and tragedy whilst also making acute observations. Everyone fell in love with him. Six Thirty is motivated by the need to protect his family at all costs, whilst Elizabeth is motivated by a need not to re-create her own family and to get people to see her for herself and her own achievements.
Many of us thought that there were just too many cliches in this book. That Elizabeth was too beautiful (Garmus says she made her beautiful to show what a burden beauty can be), that the happy ending was too trite. One of our readers was so upset that the Catholic Bishop just ‘got away with it’ that it ruined the whole book for her. We all loved the Vicar who didn’t believe in God. None of us were quite sure where the Rowing theme came from – perhaps that we are all equal if we get the technique right? We questioned the portrayal of motherhood which was a bit one-dimensional: it’s quite complex being a mother and for a feminist rant to miss that important fact felt a bit flip. As did Miss Frask whose ‘flip-flop’ from department dogs-body to running the show was too extreme – but everyone quite liked it!
We weren’t surprised to learn that Bonnie Garmus is a copywriter, and that the book has already been picked up by Apple TV. Was it hopeful, I asked? A resounding Yes – this is an Every Woman story where the women comes good. And life is better now – women’s lives are less defined and one can choose whether to have a career or be a home-maker (this comment passed unchecked but, post-meeting, I would just note that I’m not sure… if you stay at home you are judged; if you work you are judged: it is just as tricky as it always has been). However, marriage no longer symbolises an end to your working life.
‘This isn’t a particularly subtle book’, commented one reader, ‘but I loved it’. ‘Elizabeth is like a super-hero’, commented another, ‘there is something hyper-real about her’. Overall, we thought this was a warming, funny, relatable book about an abused and lost woman. The score? A resounding 8!
What else were we reading? It was lovely to see a number of previous recommendations being picked up by other members of the group (The Bees, Girl in Hyacinth Blue (exquisite!), Stanley Tucci). On the fiction side, we began with The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hugo, a bit of a Christie-esque body-hopping mystery but very good. Next came Karen Swan’s Last Summer, eagerly awaited in paperback this month - although not as eagerly awaited as the second book in the series as the first finished with a terrific twist (The Stolen Hours, due July). Marie told us how Karen’s books took her straight back to her childhood summers and time spent with her Granny. Bookshop Chris has just finished a proof of Hotel 21 (also due this month), filled with friendships and struggles and a wonderful, rich read. Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead was described as ‘fabulous’ (this is on my to be read pile!) while Go, Went, Gone by Judith Ephnick is a tough read. It is about asylum seekers in Europe and is a slightly clunky translation, but it really makes you think – hard to get into, but really worth it. Only a handful of non-fiction titles, unusually for this tribe of bookphiles! Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, about abandoned places in Britain (ghost towns etc – did well in hardback) and a wider travel title – Where Architects Stay in Europe. Our Bookclubber read this in Eastern Europe and was disappointed to find it only covered Western Europe. Finally, the wonderful A Different Kind of Daughter, Maria Toorpakai. This is the story of a young Pakistani girl who pretended to be a boy in order to go to school, becoming in time Pakistan’s No 1 Squash Player – a fascinating insight in to life beneath the Taliban.
Two links for you. The first to a rather good review of Lessons in Chemistry written by a woman chemist, and the second to the Between the Covers episode which featured it.
Happy Reading everyone!