The English Book Club
The English Book Club

Not living up to the hype: “Lessons in Chemistry”

We discussed Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry on September 21, 2023. Garmus’s 2022 best-selling novel centres on intellectually gifted chemist Elizabeth Zott and her struggles to work in scientific research as a woman in the 1950s and 1960s. And because chemistry and cooking are quite closely related, a culinary tweak is also included.

PADERBORN2READ Rating for Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

2.5 out of 5

Members’ Opinions

“An enticing concept which didn’t quite fulfil all its potential on the page—nevertheless an enjoyable and entertaining read!”

“All the hype and praise surrounding this book made me a bit sceptical from the start: would this really be a marvellous reading experience or was there maybe some glossing and exaggerating going on in the reviews? As it turns out, there was.

This novel’s female lead is intended as a feminist, no-nonsense chemist battling against misogyny in academia. While this sounds great to me, it simply did not work out and did not feel convincing. Elizabeth Zott acts and speaks like a woke feminist from 2023 TikTok in a plot set in the 1950s and 1960s. She references feminist movements and female-empowering politics that have yet to happen, she deports herself as if she owns the world, is horrifyingly misandrist and annoyingly ‘not like other girls’. Topped off with a prodigy daughter and a narrating dog, she is the sort of character that fails at being relatable or even realistic in every respect.

The plot built around this character is all over the place but unified by constantly showing off how resourceful, fantastic, genius, capable—in one word: perfect—she is. Being an expert in virtually every field of chemistry? No problem for Elizabeth Zott. Being an exemplar mother? No problem. Being a successful rower not because of training but because of knowledge in physics? No problem. Becoming head of the chemistry department despite having no chemistry degree? Again, no problem because the university is owned by another woman anyway. All in all, this is one of the most unrealistic plots in a novel intended as at least leaning into realism that I have ever read. I agree with some of the reviews on pages like where readers categorized Lessons in Chemistry as borderline fantasy.

One somewhat positive remark can be made about the writing style that is not particularly sophisticated, but at least fluent, witty and at times funny. I wonder if this novel could have been much better given a thoroughly working editor. With the main character’s quirks toned down to an at least relatable level and with the plot restructered and reframed to a believable set-up, Bonnie Garmus’s writing style could have made this an entertaining read. But with the way it is, I cannot give this novel more than a one-star review.”

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is an award-winning book highly celebrated for its important messages about the role of women in science in the 1960s. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to live up to the hype—it is neither about chemistry, nor about cooking, nor about really about feminism. The characters and relationships are one-dimensional and motivations do not become clear throughout the story. The premise is a promising one, but something must have gone wrong along the lines when the dog turned out to be the most (and only) relatable character.”

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Summer Term 2023

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