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Lessins in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus - Review

Friday, November 10, 2023

I have heard a bunch of people raving about this book and I sort of had it in my head to buy it, but then I got sent it in a book swap! So random but so fortuitous as I wanted to read it! I picked it up not too long after I received it. I am glad I read it but I didn't love it, so I would like to know what other people thought of it. 

Let me get into the story of it first: Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. At the beginning of the book she has a small child, Madeline, who is around six. Madeline is having some problems with a girl at school, so Elizabeth goes to confront Amanda's dad about it. Walter Pine is a TV executive, and he ends up getting Elizabeth to front a cooking show, which uses chemistry to explain how to cook. Elizabeth is not a natural presenter, but her show starts a movement among the women of the time. This part of the book is set in around 1960, just as the feminism movement was getting off the ground. 

We then go back in time to Elizabeth's earlier life as a chemist at Hastings University. She met Calvin Evans, also a chemist, and who the university pins a lot of its hopes on. The two didn't get on at first but then began a relationship. She moved in with him and began rowing with him; he had rowed at Cambridge and had carried on. He had grown up in a boys home where he received gifts from a mysterious benefactor which included microscopes and other scientific equipment. Elizabeth had grown up in a cold household and no longer had any contact with her family. 

Calvin wanted Elizabeth to marry him but she refused, rightly knowing that it would mean the end to her career. She is protected at the university by her relationship with Calvin, but the men in her department steal her work and there are forces at work within the university that are conspiring to get rid of her.

I don't want to say anymore about the plot, because I didn't know anything else and there were parts of the book that genuinely shocked me. I will say that I did guess a few of the twists towards the end; I thought they were a bit predictable and a bit tropey, if I'm honest. 

My main criticism of the book is that it's told in quite a meta way. There are parts which are really short - just a paragraph or so - and which are sort of removed from the narrative. They tend to tell the reader what is to come, like "X character found out Y thing because Z", and then the parts afterwards tell you exactly how X found out Y. I'm not sure I liked this approach. I found it really jarring. But maybe it's just a narrative device and maybe it's fine. I found it was too much telling and not enough showing, though, which annoyed me. 

I also felt like the chemistry stuff was overdone slightly, like it was just all rammed in when it didn't need to be. 

A few people at book club had read this and one person mentioned that she didn't like the end, and I do sort of agree with that. It felt a bit trite. 

Interesting book and I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't run out to read anything else by the same author. I'm giving this three out of five. 

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