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A Fresh Look at Misogyny

Ongoing issues with gender bias breathe life into debut novel by Bonnie Garmus

Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry on AppleTV
Lessons in Chemistry Book Cover

Title

Lessons in Chemistry

Author(s)

Bonnie Garmus

Genre

Women’s Fiction

My paternal grandmother’s family was wealthy. Abuela, however, was not the heiress to the family-owned tobacco empire. No. That’s because, in 1950s Cuba, women didn’t inherit anything—instead, her brother inherited it all. It turned out to be a moot point—the Revolution nationalized all private businesses, and my family fled to the United States. But, before that, Abuela didn’t want for anything. At 17, she dropped out of high school to marry my grandfather, who was an apparent gold digger at ten years her senior. By 18, she was a mother—by 27, a divorcée with four sons. Nine months later, she remarried, and two months after that was pregnant with a daughter. 

Abuela was not particularly ambitious. As the family story goes, she never even graduated high school. Marrying, mothering, and homemaking were the only aspirations encouraged in the ’50s. Or so society claimed. But my abuela detested children, so a more plausible start to Abuela’s story is that her parents didn’t instill in her the self-worth she desperately needed to want something else: an education, a job, a career, a purpose. My great-grandparents’ lack of preparation wiped away Abuela’s hope of being anything other than a wife and mother. But that was the 1950s—women were expected to be homemakers and mothers, and that was it. Many women had ambitions, but education––especially in an advanced field—was not supported. 

Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, jarred me. Not because I’m oblivious to the misogyny that has managed to seep into every era, but because it’s brimming with frighteningly familiar themes still relevant today. However subtly, misogyny exists today. It’s hidden behind minuscule, seemingly innocuous doses of systemic bias and microaggressions. Garmus’s novel feels familiar, and her prose proves that there’s less of a leap between the eras than initially appears.

The novel begins with Elizabeth Zott, a popular, Good Eats-esque cooking show host. But she’s actually a chemist and treats cooking as chemistry—because it is. Elizabeth Zott is also depressed, and it’s all the fault of her soulmate, Calvin Evans. 

Garmus delights us with a cast of endearing characters and a few aggravatingly nefarious ones—though, not all of them men. She gives us an array of voices that sort out Elizabeth Zott’s mystique, engaging us with insight from Elizabeth’s protective dog, Six Thirty; her precocious daughter, Madeleine; her cynical neighbor and best friend, Harriet; the skeptical minister, Reverend Wakely; her loveable producer, Walter Pine; and her all too short-lived lover, Calvin. Together, they bake a wholesome batch of tasty treats in various flavors: hope, faith, love, and opportunity. Yes, there are sour moments—pungently sour. Garmus puts Elizabeth through the sifter, adding table spoons of tragedy, violence, and suffering to round out this mouthwatering delicacy of a novel.

On its surface, Lessons in Chemistry is about a woman who is determined to be self-reliant, as she attempts to find her way in the strictly male field of chemistry. At Hastings, the research institute where she works, Elizabeth Zott must rise above her colleagues’ derogatory comments to establish a name for herself as a chemist. While researching abiogenesis, she ignites a chemical reaction with quirky, award-winning scientist and rower Calvin Evans. This infuriates her coworkers, who accuse her of riding on his coattails. The coworkers grow bitter and resentful, watching their relationship develop into an unbreakable bond. But Calvin Evans is shrouded in secrecy—and then he dies. Elizabeth, heartbroken and pregnant, blames herself for his death; Six Thirty blames himself, too.

Four years later, Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, Madeleine, is tasked in school with compiling her family tree. In search of the truth behind her father’s reputation, Madeleine enlists the help of a few allies. Here’s where Garmus’s depth of storytelling dazzles. She plants infinitesimal, seemingly irrelevant details throughout the novel about Calvin, only to reveal the source of that information unavailable for further exploration. Garmus leaves us biting our fingernails, wondering how Mad will uncover those pivotal details. Garmus accomplishes this with panache and a little whimsy as Madeleine goes sleuthing to uncover her ancestry. 

Although Lessons in Chemistry is fiction, a little digging revealed that, during the time period in which the novel is set, many men were outright resistant to women joining the workforce. This is mirrored in both the highly misogynist characters in the book, along with the numerous deferential male characters who do their best at inclusion—but are just not great at it. 

The novel’s page on Amazon is full of irritating comments denouncing this book as anti-men, anti-Catholic, and anti-teacher. On the contrary, this novel is staunchly anti-pedophile, anti-misogyny, anti-sexual assault, anti-religious charlatan, and anti-bad teacher. It also underscores every woman’s fight to claim her place in her field. Additionally, it tackles the erroneous notion that a woman’s voice is unimportant—a notion still held even today.

Ultimately, Elizabeth Zott—reserved, idiosyncratic, and honest to a fault—has integrity. Suppose we forego the misogyny, derisiveness, and demagoguery surrounding the commentary on the book. What’s left is a young girl discovering her identity and an unwavering mother championing her.

 

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About the author(s).

Bonnie Garmus is a copywriter and creative director who has worked widely in technology, medicine, and education. She’s an open-water swimmer, a rower, and a mother to two amazing daughters. Born in California and recently from Seattle, she lives in London with her husband and her dog, 99. Watch the series, Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on AppleTV.

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