Author: Bonnie Garmus
If you loved Rona Jaffe’s book ‘The Best of Everything’ or Nikil Saval’s Cubed, you will also love Lessons in Chemistry. In general, if you like reading novels or popular literature based on resembling historical realities, this is a book for you because it tackles sexism in the workplace in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, specifically focusing on women in science. Lessons in Chemistry was recommended to me by a co-host of the #WECAN book club, and we are discussing the book in this month’s meeting.
Elizabeth Zott is a chemist who works in an institute where she is clearly the best scientist helping many mediocre and incompetent men, yet she has her funding taken away and given to men and regularly gets cast aside and treated badly. Sounds familiar? Yes, it does and not just because you possibly read the literature from this period but because it still happens today albeit not to a level this severe as Zott also loses her job when her civil partner (an outstanding scientist and not a misogynist) dies in an accident and she finds out she is pregnant. She loses her job because of pregnancy outside of wedlock and then accidentally lands a leading role in her own culinary show. In that, she does not just teach cooking but teaches excellent cooking based on the rules of chemistry and the chemical constitution of ingredients. In the show, she also openly speaks and promotes feminist views such as that women can do anything and about her own lifestyle, which sometimes causes an outrage (e.g., not being religious).
What was particularly interesting to me, as a communications researcher, was the notion of what audiences want. So, the producer who hired Zott and is arguably a good man still loses his nerves with her chemical orientation instead of the bouncy and housewifey show, which women allegedly want to watch. The situation was obviously very different, but this often happens with the media. There are studies very clearly showing that women are the ones buying newspapers, for example, and yet it is men who decide on the content, with research (including my own) showing the way we understand the news is also gendered, thus masculine news and expectations are served to women. This part and a constant hassle for Zott to focus more on entertainment instead education was very interesting to read.
I also enjoyed some of her talks about women and the fact she said chemistry can prove that gender inequality is bad for the world. I could not find articles to prove this, but it is an interesting statement and one I could easily get on board with and I found an interesting study saying gender inequality is bad for men’s health. However, what I certainly did find is evidence of STEM fields still largely being gender-segregated and women not advancing enough (see here and also here), which is bad enough because if we look at the communications research we have done in our field, we very clearly see women and men see things differently (see here, here, here), thus imagine the world of chemistry with multiple perspectives and ways of seeing the world?
This book also tackles that because Zott does very advanced and revolutionary research not done before and faces setbacks, stealing credit and funding, as well as not being able to lead in her own area, which is what many women around the world still face, which has not changed sufficiently and studies still report tokenism. Indeed, if the recent pandemic has done anything good, it is that it has opened up employees’ eyes to bad work behaviour and made people leave organisations and look for new opportunities, or it led to the Great Resignation.
Another aspect of the book I absolutely loved is Zott’s animal-loving character and the fact she talks to her dog, reads to him and teaches him words insisting animals can learn more than it is normally believed. I also loved the fact the author is portraying thoughts of a dog (Six Thirty, a name based on the time he entered Zott’s life) so a bit of a fantasy in the book, which I can definitely get on board with.
Lessons in Chemistry is written in a very compelling style with lots of excellent details and descriptions and it is clear the author has made a massive effort with this book, which is also clearly based on some thorough research. I could not let it go and ended up staying up two nights reading. There are some disturbing elements of discrimination, abuse and assaults in the book, which are embedded within the wider context of the US during the 1950s and 1960s, and very skillfully so.
Compelling. Astonishing. Equally disturbing and beautiful. A must-read.
Thank you for reading.