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Why Lessons in Chemistry Is the Biggest Debut Novel of the Past Year

The same ingredient that makes some readers recoil from this bestseller is also what makes it so delicious..

Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry , has become one of those books you see everywhere: in the hands of subway passengers and waiting room idlers, on the nightstands of book group members, all over the realm of TikTok known as #BookTok, as Barnes & Noble’s Book of the Year for 2022, and, last but not least, on the New York Times bestseller list for 58 weeks and counting. Last November, the Times noted that it was “on track to be the best-selling debut novel of 2022,” and it seems to have only sold better since. There’s also good reason to believe that it’s only going to get bigger: In October, Apple TV+ will premiere a TV series based on the novel, starring Brie Larson. Garmus, who is 66 and wrote Lessons in Chemistry after a long career as a copywriter, is living every first-time novelist’s dream.

What’s the fuss about? Chances are: not what you think. As the Times article observed, the novel’s American cover is misleading, a cartoon image of a woman side-eyeing coquettishly over a pair of cat-eye glasses against a pink background. Paired with the title, this image shouts “ STEMinist romance novel ,” a currently booming genre. But Lessons is only incidentally about romantic love. Instead, it’s the story of Elizabeth Zott, a woman chemist and single mother confronting sexism and other tribulations as she tries to pursue her vocation in the early 1960s. She stumbles into a gig hosting a chemistry-centric cooking show on daytime TV and becomes a celebrity in syndication.

Lessons in Chemistry belongs to a genre of literary fiction that could be called the quirky tragicomedy. The novel it’s most often likened to is 2012’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette , by Maria Semple, about a daughter trying to understand her mother’s abandonment. In these books, the main character has amusingly eccentric traits or interests and suffers undeniably serious losses, but the overall tone remains light, with a touch of rueful melancholy and a whole lot of brave soldiering on. After a boom in the 2000s, this style of fiction seems to be increasingly uncommon, which explains why some of today’s readers, raised on plots that milk trauma for all it’s worth, find the novel’s tone confusing.

Elizabeth, who appears to be neurodivergent in some way, gets peeved when a male colleague suggests that she learn to “outsmart” the system, because she can’t see why systems can’t just be “smart in the first place.” She knows that she lives in “a patriarchal society founded on the idea that women were less,” but she indignantly refuses to acknowledge the dictates of that society. After Elizabeth becomes pregnant out of wedlock by one of the few decent men in the novel, and the head of her lab tries to fire her on moral grounds, she seems genuinely astonished, as if she is only just now finding out about the sexual double standard.

Much of the humor in Lessons in Chemistry comes from the collision of Elizabeth’s stubborn scientific rationalism with the unthinkingly conventional attitudes of everyone else. Elizabeth herself has no sense of humor. Her daughter, Madeline, is a similarly brainy prodigy who reads Norman Mailer in kindergarten, shocking her sourpuss teacher, and can’t understand why she gets in trouble for insisting that human beings are animals.

Garmus has an impressive ability to maintain a Campari-like balance of the bitter and the sugary. Elizabeth endures harrowing setbacks, not just a wall of sexism in her career but also a sexual assault and the deaths of loved ones. Trauma abounds in the sympathetic characters’ backstories. Elizabeth’s father, a charismatic religious charlatan, is in prison, and her gold-digger mother is out of the picture, run off to Latin America with her latest rich husband. Madeline’s father, an orphan, grew up in a grim Catholic boys’ school. Elizabeth’s helpful neighbor Harriet has a vile, abusive husband who expects her to tidy up his dirty magazine collection. All of Elizabeth’s bosses (with the exception of the meek producer who makes her a TV star) are insulting, domineering lechers. A more vulnerable woman would be utterly downtrodden by all this, but Elizabeth’s determined single-mindedness and indifference to what other people think of her—the same qualities that tend to alienate her colleagues—provide a kind of shield.

In counterbalance, there are Elizabeth’s improbably studious multitudes of fans, housewives who watch her show, Supper at Six , with notebooks in hand, jotting down her explanation of the hydrogen bond’s role in the cooking process. Elizabeth delivers on-screen pep talks about subsidized child care and encourages one live audience member to follow her dream and apply to medical school, to the cheers of the crowd. There is an absurdly anthropomorphized dog named Six-Thirty (for the time when Elizabeth found him on the street), a noble creature who understands hundreds of words and assists Elizabeth in her home lab. Even readers who don’t care for the rest of the novel—every very popular book inevitably reaps some detractors—adore Six-Thirty.

Call me a cat person, but Six-Thirty seems a calculated bid for reader sympathy designed to shore up the novel’s sentimental side against the harshness of Elizabeth’s life. There are sensitive readers who feel so overwhelmed by the cruelty of Elizabeth’s persecutors—complaints about the lack of trigger warnings are common—that they profess bafflement that anyone could call Lessons in Chemistry a comic novel.

But I’d argue that the novel’s bad guys are the real secrets to its success. Were all men in authority in the early ’60s so comprehensively horrid, a rogues’ gallery of bigots, rapists, plagiarists, and gaslighters? No, but a popular fairy tale—which Lessons in Chemistry most certainly is—needs a thoroughly hateable villain, and this book has several corkers. The dastardly, smug baddies of Garmus’ novel are the engines that drive her plot like a locomotive. You keep reading as much to see them defeated as to see Elizabeth win. To make that happen, Garmus resorts to a final reveal that is pure Dickens—the furthest thing from the collective action that actually made scientific careers possible for women like Elizabeth. Then again, as every Lessons in Chemistry critic ought to bear in mind, too much reality does not a bestseller make.

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nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

Book Review

Lessons in chemistry.

  • Bonnie Garmus
  • Comedy , Drama

Lessons in Chemistry book cover

Readability Age Range

  • 15 years old and up
  • Doubleday Books
  • Best Book of the Year: The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Oprah Daily, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek; #1 New York Times Bestseller; GMA Book Club Pick

Year Published

When Elizabeth Zott becomes the host for an afternoon cooking show, the men want her to do things their way. But as a good chemist, she’s much more interested in changing up the formula. There are, after all, lessons that need to be learned.

Plot Summary

In 1962, a woman’s life is far from easy.

I mean, some would say that if a “gal” just stayed in her lane, got married, raised a family and minded her Ps and Qs, then things were manageable. But Elizabeth Zott has never been that kind of woman.

I mean what do Ps and Qs have to do with anything ?!

In her heart of hearts, Elizabeth is simply and purely a scientist—a chemist, to be specific. And that’s what makes sense to her. Formulas. Experiments. Chemical bonds. Those are all things that fit well in her brain. In truth, not only do they fit, but they help make sense of life itself.

That’s why Elizabeth Zott is not only a great scientist but also a pretty great cook. It’s all a matter of chemical combinations, precise formulas and experimentation.

But … more about that cooking side of things in a moment.

You see, for all of her hard work and careful focus, everything has always seemed to go wrong for the very talented Zott. And a lot of it has been driven by the hardheaded, domineering and lust-driven men of science in 1962. (No, I take that back. It’s the men in every walk of life in 1962 that are the problem.)

For nearly all men of the day, a pretty woman—and Elizabeth Zott is surely one of those—is supposed to stick to the secretarial pool. Or the bedroom. Well, they’d find the kitchen to be acceptable, too, I suppose. But for a woman to be the smartest person in the room? The one who formulates groundbreaking theories and wins science grants? Oh no, that can never be a woman’s role.

In fact, if a woman does come up with something of great interest, her male superior is likely to steal it and publish it as his own.

Naturally, by age 28, Elizabeth Zott has already had a difficult go of things. She was almost raped as a college student. She was kicked out of her doctoral program after the above result. She met and lost the most loving and brilliant man she had ever met. And now, here she sits. She’s jobless and with a young child out of wedlock.

But that’s when something good happens. (It didn’t feel good at the moment, but it was.) Through a confluence of disparate circumstances involving Zott’s handmade school lunch; a particularly irksome teacher; and a divorced father/producer at the end of his rope; Elizabeth Zott receives a job offer.

If she can display just a bit of her attractiveness and a dash of her cooking skill in an afternoon TV slot—one that was recently vacated by a clown show—she can earn a little money to support herself and her daughter.

Her first reaction is a definite no . But then something dawns on her. She might not draw a huge audience, but a cooking show is, in essence, a lesson about chemistry and chemical reactions. And she could teach it.

She wouldn’t wear the required tight TV costume or smirk foolishly for the camera, of course. But she could talk to women. She could teach them, challenge them, experiment along with them. And who knows, she might just change up the formula of their lives a little.

Experimental formulas have always been her forte, after all.

Christian Beliefs

Elizabeth looks askance at anything to do with religion or faith. Not only does she repeatedly declare that faith is foolish and baseless (as do others), but she also isn’t even geared to tolerate it. We learn that Elizabeth’s father was something of a con-artist evangelist who was eventually jailed for nearly killing people with his grandstanding and explosive displays “of faith.” Her mother ran off to another country to escape paying taxes on their ill-gotten wealth.

Elizabeth’s father also drove her older brother to suicide with repeated declarations of God’s hatred for the young man’s sin.

Elizabeth admits to a woman in her show’s audience that she doesn’t believe in God when the woman asks about saying grace before a meal. Elizabeth’s admission causes some to picket outside the show and say nasty things about her lost soul.

Elizabeth’s soulmate, brilliant scientist Calvin Evan’s, was raised in a Catholic orphanage after his adoptive parents were killed in an accident. It is strongly implied that he had to fight off sexually abusive priests as a boy, and the priests also lie and cheat to get donations. The school’s teachers rip sections out of science texts that don’t match up with their theology.

Calvin also has a series of correspondences with a Presbyterian minister. They share thoughts of science and faith. But while Calvin never wavers from his declaration that faith has no bearing on life, the minister eventually steps back from faith in God. In fact, when we meet the man later, he’s still in the ministering profession (and a nice man), but someone without any spiritual conviction.

The only positive thing said about godliness is when Elizabeth states that she starts thinking of her neighbor, a helpful woman named Harriet, as “something holy.” She sees Harriet as a “practical priest,” someone she can confess things to—”fears, hopes, mistakes.”

Other Belief Systems

Calvin and Elizabeth both declare that only science can be empirically proven to be factual. And so that’s where their faith and beliefs lie.

You could say, however, that Elizabeth’s 4-year-old daughter, Madeline, has a special spiritual sensitivity about her. She’s very bright and perceptive, and she senses other people’s unspoken thoughts such as Elizabeth’s hidden sadness, their dog’s feelings of guilt and Harriet’s fear that she has never been in love.

Authority Roles

Most of the people who have authority over Elizabeth are men. And men, in general, aren’t very laudable in Lessons in Chemistry . Most are, at the very least, emotionally abusive to nearly every woman they meet. They demean them, ignore them and, in a number of cases, abuse them verbally, emotionally and physically. And it’s expected that women in 1962 should take what they’re given and stay quiet about it.

For instance, when a college professor attempts to rape Elizabeth, the cop writing up the crime asks a bleeding Elizabeth if she wants to make an apology statement, suggesting that doing so will make things easier for her in the long run . She refuses and loses her position in a doctoral program. In fact, of all the men we meet in this story, only a few are portrayed as trustworthy and upright.

Both Elizabeth and Calvin have no connection with their parents. And they have very few people they can look to for positive guidance.

On the other hand, Elizabeth is an odd combination of brilliance and beauty mixed with something close to savant levels of emotional detachment. She smiles on, perhaps, three occasions in the story. However, she is a gifted teacher and loving mother. She teaches daughter Madeline to read at a very young age while helping her understand the complexities of her young life. She even takes on the job of teaching their adopted dog to understand human words, growing his lexicon of understood phrases into the hundreds.

Harriet and her husband divorce. She finds a caring companion in Mr. Pine. People in authority openly lie to gain prestige, recognition and money.

Profanity & Violence

The book doesn’t feel densely profane, but there are repeated uses of f- and s-words, exclamations of “h—,” “d–n” and “b–tch” and misuses of Jesus’ name.

We hear of some people drinking. Harriet is hit with a bottle thrown by her drunken husband. She makes it plain that he gets drunk often.

Elizabeth notes that her relationships with men (other than Calvin Evans) tended to be destructive and negative. “She only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her or tell her what to do,” she thinks.

We see several situations that are quite demonstrative of that thought. She is sexually attacked by a college professor, bloodied and slapped senseless, and the rape is only stopped because she jams a sharpened pencil into the man’s side. Another woman says a similar thing happened to her. And another man angrily approaches Elizabeth and pushes his exposed genitals in her face before being stopped by the sharp end of a large knife.

A man is killed in an unfortunate accident when he falls and is run over by a car. Another man has a massive heart attack. Someone is said to have committed suicide by hanging.

Sexual Content

Elizabeth reports that her beloved older brother was gay. Elizabeth’s producer friend, Mr. Pine, finds out that his young daughter was actually the product of an affair his wife had with another man. But he declares that regardless of the genetics, she is still his daughter. “He loved her with all his heart,” the book tells us.

Some men and women make rude suggestions and untrue statements about Elizabeth and her sexual life, suggesting that she’s promiscuous. The accusations are largely baseless, but the unmarried Elizabeth does have a sexual relationship with Calvin. (The story describes some of their caressing conversations while lying together after sex.) Calvin asks Elizabeth to marry him, but she refuses.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion question for books at focusonthefamily.com/magazine/thriving-family-book-discussion-questions .

Additional Comments

Lessons in Chemistry is a New York Times bestselling book that was adapted and recently released as a stylish AppleTV+ series starring Brie Larson .

The book has a “young adult” energy about it. And first-time author Bonnie Garmus uses a compelling female protagonist and an early 1960s setting to create a memorable feminist fantasy.

This tale presents a sometimes amusing and insightful perspective on life and learning. But potential readers should also note that the story frowns at what it considers the “failings” of traditional marriage, and (with a few exceptions) turns the men from the 1960s into buffoonish and villainous stereotypes. In addition, Lessons in Chemistry delivers repeated negative comments about faith and those who have faith in God as part of their lives.

Interestingly though, the book as a whole is rather narrowly focused on its own sermonizing. And those full-throated lessons will offer contemplative fuel, or at least combustive chemistry, to readers of a certain stripe.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected] .

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose

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clock This article was published more than  2 years ago

At age 64, debut novelist Bonnie Garmus makes the case for experience

Garmus’s novel ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ delivers an assured voice, an indelible heroine and relatable love stories

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Judith Krantz , Bonnie Garmus is a latecomer to the literary scene. This week she publishes her first book — the sparkling novel “ Lessons in Chemistry ” — days shy of her 65th birthday. Hurray for this! If we’re going to continually fuss over newly minted MFA wunderkinds landing two-book deals, let us also raise a glass — or, better yet, Garmus’s book — in honor of this rarer breed of first-time novelists.

With “Lessons in Chemistry,” Garmus, a venerable copywriter and creative director, delivers an assured voice, an indelible heroine and several love stories — that of a mother for her daughter, a woman for science, a dog for a child, and between a woman and man.

We need comic novels more than ever. So where are they?

At the center of the novel is Elizabeth Zott, a gifted research chemist, absurdly self-assured and immune to social convention, “a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who was not average and never would be.” (Is it any wonder that Oscar-winner Brie Larson is set to play her in an Apple TV Plus “Lessons” series that she will also executive produce?)

The novel is set in the early 1960s in the mythical Southern California town of Commons where, it appears, few people are. Being a woman in science is a hard, lonely road. Elizabeth becomes a national somebody not in the lab but as a kitchen savant on a local afternoon television show called “Supper at Six.” Her nutritious dishes are doused in chemistry with a heaping side order of female empowerment.

“When women understand chemistry," she explains to a reporter, “they understand how things work." Science offers “the real rules that govern the physical world. When women understand these basic concepts, they can begin to see the false limits that have been created for them.” It’s better living through casseroles.

A decade earlier, Elizabeth met Nobel-nominated chemist and master grudge-holder Calvin Evans at the Hastings Research Institute, where he is a star and she is not because, well, sexism. They fit because they don’t anywhere else. Garmus has packed her novel with rowing (“As any non-rower can tell you, rowers are not fun. This is because rowers only ever want to talk about rowing”), heartache, corporate malfeasance and, that most relished and rarest of real-life events, a humiliating comeuppance.

Women are over the underwire bra

Elizabeth is a feminist and modern thinker. She has little talent for ingratiating herself with other people. It is Elizabeth, not her equally eccentric and stubborn swain, who refuses to wed “because I can’t risk having my scientific contributions submerged beneath your name.” Her obstinance, becoming an unwed mother at a time when they were shunted elsewhere, creates a heap of trouble for her in a world nowhere ready for her mind, character or ambition.

There is an infectious absurdity to the book and its hero. Here’s Elizabeth discussing the hydrogen chemical bond on a show ostensibly about dinner: “I call this the ‘love at first sight’ bond because both parties are drawn to each other based solely on visual information: you like his smile, he likes your hair. But then you talk and discover he’s a closet Nazi and thinks women complain too much. Poof. Just like that the delicate bond is broken. That’s the hydrogen bond for you ladies — a chemical reminder that if things are too good to be true, they probably are.”

Then, with her knife, she takes a “Paul Bunyan swing” at an onion. “It’s chicken pot pie night,” she declares. “Let’s get started.”

Could “Lessons” have been a few instructions tauter? Certainly. Garmus knows her characters from the initial pages. There’s little need to keep informing readers how exceptional they are or how adamant Elizabeth is in pursuing her truth. Also, every dog may have its day, but that doesn’t mean he need scamper through a novel as an astute fictional character. “ Welcome to life on the outside! How was your trip? Please, come in, come in! I’ve got chalk! ” These are the musings of Elizabeth’s dog, Six-Thirty (a nod to the time he joined the family) as he welcomes baby Madeleine into his world.

Still, Garmus manages to charm. She’s created an indelible assemblage of stubborn, idiosyncratic characters. She’s given us a comic novel at precisely the moment we crave one. Perhaps, in her next effort, Garmus will provide a heroine who is more her peer, someone who would be a perfect role for, say, Emma Thompson or Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Karen Heller is national features writer for Style.

Lessons in Chemistry

By Bonnie Garmus

Doubleday. 400 pp. $29

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

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In 'Lessons in Chemistry,' a chemist is the star of ... a cooking show?

Bonnie Garmus' new novel Lessons In Chemistry has been getting a lot of buzz. Elizabeth Zott is a talented chemist but because it's the 1960s she faces sexism in her quest to work as a scientist. So instead she has a cooking show that is wildly popular. Garmus told NPR's Scott Simon that the character of Elizabeth lived in her head for many years before she started writing this novel.

Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel By Bonnie Garmus

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In new novel, elizabeth zott is a chemist with a cooking show, thanks to gender roles.

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Brie Larson in the TV adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus audiobook review – a smart and funny feminist fable

A witty and incisive skewering of the patriachy in society and science, with endearingly straight-talking characters

E lizabeth Zott is a research scientist trying to make her way in a man’s world. It’s 1952, a time when women are expected to give up their careers to get married and have children. But Elizabeth isn’t content having her work sidelined – or, worse still, stolen – by her male colleagues at California’s Hastings Research Institute, so she resolves to keep working and never get married. When she falls in love with Calvin Evans, a Nobel-nominated chemist, she declines his marriage proposal but agrees to move in with him and get a dog.

Bonnie Garmus’s smart and funny feminist fable – a TV adaptation of which arrives this month on Apple TV+ starring Brie Larson – is read by the British actor Miranda Raison, who delights in Elizabeth’s pithy observations on the many ways women are undermined by men. An unconventional and charismatic heroine determined to live life on her terms, Elizabeth must find ever more ingenious ways to make a living and challenge the status quo.

Fast-forward to the early 60s and Calvin is dead, Elizabeth a single parent to their precocious daughter Madeline. She is also, improbably, a TV star. Having been fired from her research job for being pregnant and unmarried, she is now hosting a hugely successful cooking series, where she tutors housewives in home-cooking while introducing science and liberal politics by stealth. Moving between comedy and tragedy, Lessons in Chemistry is a powerful and entertaining portrait of a woman battling misogyny and visiting revenge on those who wish to silence her.

Lessons in Chemistry is available via Penguin Audio, 11hr 56min

Further listening Still Life Sarah Winman , 4th Estate , 14hr 55min A young soldier named Ulysses meets Evelyn, a sixtysomething art historian, by chance in a Tuscan bomb shelter during the second world war in this sweeping novel. Read by the author.

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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus review — the smart debut becoming an Apple TV+ series

No wonder this funny, big-hearted debut sparked a publishing war and is coming soon to a television near you.

Mixing it up: the image of a traditional housewife

I n Southern California in 1961, Elizabeth Zott, the singular protagonist of this sparky debut, ignites a kitchen revolution. Zott is a phenomenally popular television chef. Every weekday evening women across America tune in to her show, Supper at Six , which follows a cook-along format with ad-lib, empowering life and careers advice.

A single mother to an illegitimate daughter, rowing enthusiast and on-the-record atheist, the dazzling Zott is an unconventional television star. Not least because she is a serious-minded, reluctant public figure; she would rather be working obscurely as a research scientist. Her career ambitions stymied by workplace misogyny, she only agrees to present Supper at Six because it permits her to stealthily impart her passion for science.

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Lessons in Chemistry By Bonnie Garmus–ATLP Book Review

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

  • Debut Novel
  • Released April 2022
  • Rated 4.43 stars on Goodreads
  • Contemporary Fiction
  • Historical Fiction
  • Scientist Protagonist
  • Elements of Feminism
“Her grudges were mainly reserved for a patriarchal society founded on the idea that women were less. Less capable. Less inventive.” Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry (14)

Reviewed by The Guardian , The New York Times , and The Washington Post , Lessons in Chemistry is certainly a book that has gained speed quickly.

Set in California in the 1960s, Lessons in Chemistry is the story of Elizabeth Zott. Zott is a female scientist on an all-male research team in a time where women were more often housewives than chemists. Zott is working on an important project when she meets Calvin Evans, an infamous scientist also working for the same research company. While the two seem like an unlikely pair, their time together is much more than romantic chemistry—that is, until Evans suffers from a tragic accident.

Left alone with a dog and an unborn child, Elizabeth has to learn to handle motherhood as an unwed mother. Struggling with inequality, the difficulties of her field, and her role to her child, Zott finds herself reluctantly leaving the research facility and starting a cooking show with a fellow parent. Her unusual approach to cooking proves revolutionary and gains her a large following. Yet, as her following grows, so does the implication that women don’t just belong in the kitchen.

Compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel , Lessons in Chemistry is described as witty, laugh-out-loud funny, and must-read debut.

TW: This review talks of sexual abuse

Let me start off my saying how widely well-received Lessons in Chemistry is. I picked through quite a lot of reviews after finishing this novel, and it consistently rates high among readers. On Goodreads, it’s rated steadily at 4.5 stars. Amazon reviews are similar with less than 7% of 9,000 reviewers rating it 1-3 stars. Well—I suppose I’ll be in the 7 th percent.

I picked up this book because I’ve been attempting to read more debut novels this year. While scientific protagonists aren’t my usual go-to, I love a good romance and I thoroughly enjoyed The Love Hypothesis, The Soulmate Equation, and The Kiss Quotient.  All three of these novels are light, easy romances that contain female protagonists in the STEM fields. Going into this novel, I expected to find the same type of story. Though Lessons in Chemistry was far from what I was expecting.

I would agree that the tone and writing style of Bonnie Garmus is very similar to that of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but the similarities end there (for me, at least). While described as witty and laugh-out-loud funny, I didn’t find Lessons in Chemistry to be either. In fact, it was quite tragic what the protagonist went through.

Very early on in the story, readers are introduced to Zott’s unfortunate introduction into the scientific community. She is raped by a superior and because of this, is forced into relinquishing her hopes of a PhD and leaving her school’s program. When she is hired by Hastings Research Institute, the research company, she again is tested with highly inappropriate levels of gender inequality.

While I’m not saying that gender inequality wasn’t prevalent in the late 1950s/early 1960s (because it was), my research indicates that gender roles had already begun to change in the late 1940s when women began to complete men’s jobs during WWII. Second Wave Feminism seems to have started sometime in the 1960s, which is likely the timeline that Garmus is trying to target. While I wasn’t able to find much about female scientists, in particular, in the 1950s/’60s, I did find t his interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine about Margaret Rossiter , a woman that worked in STEM during that time and related her experiences. She has since devoted her life to the women that have been written out of scientific history.

While part of Zott’s story follows Rossiter’s findings, much of it remains unspoken for. Upon reading comments on other reviews, I discovered that many female scientists from the time didn’t feel they were treated similarly to Zott, like this one from Elyse Walters .

“In my own life in ‘California’ -during the 50’s, 60’s… I was a Kinesiology major at UC Berkeley. I never felt like I was in a man’s world. My organic chemistry classes were grueling-but that wasn’t because I was a woman. In my experience–I never had a problem. I wasn’t sexually harassed.” Elyse Walters, Goodreads Review, April 6, 2022

Something I found very frustrating about this novel, in general, was the stereotyping. Everyone around Elizabeth is stereotyped in some way or another, and she is, as well. Calvin Evans, the man who is devoted to his work, is extremely left-brained, and thinks of everything as logically as possible. He’s a rower and an Ivy-League graduate, with a perfect record. Then we have Harriet, the woman next door who is in an unhappy marriage where her husband abuses her. She has several kids of her own and fits the housewife perspective that Zott wants to hard to break. And, of course, we can’t forget about Walter Pine, the TV show producer that wants Elizabeth glammed up and in dresses to satiate his boss, but also has dealt with her “masculinity” first-hand.

Each character has a role to play, but yet none of them really DO anything, which I find very frustrating. Harriet continually puts up with her husband’s abuse, Calvin leaves the house to Elizabeth after his accident (and has all intentions of convincing her to marry him), and even Walter is reluctant to stand up to his boss. These ends are all conveniently tied in a nice little bow at the end of this book, thanks to Elizabeth, of course. And, don’t even get me start on Elizabeth’s daughter, who somehow miraculously can walk herself to the library, research, and associate with strangers at 5 years old? Tell me how that’s realistic.

Yet, these character analyses beg the question—why is Elizabeth the way she is? Is it because of the rape? The injustice? The gender inequalities? If women supposedly went through this all the time during the ‘50s and ‘60s, then why aren’t all women stepping out to break boundaries? Elizabeth is a character from 2022 trying to implement social causes that haven’t happened yet. To me, it comes across as if someone from 2022 created her character, rather than Elizabeth truly belonging in her timeline. The problem with this? She’s unrealistically out of place and this throws the plotline off. During this time, women would have been making more practiced, thought-out moves to change society. Instead, Elizabeth just goes off the rails by calling out her superiors, quitting her job (when she re-hired), and other actions, that ultimately make life even more difficult for her than if she had been smart about her decisions in the first place. As a woman, this infuriates me.

In fact, I found Miss Frask’s character to be much more realistic of a 1950s female character breaking boundaries than Elizabeth’s character. While Miss Frask starts off the story as an antagonist, we quickly learn how she became this way, especially as she makes further advances to help Elizabeth later on in the story. While I won’t put any spoilers in here about what she does, I think her character depth is much more significant, in some ways, than Elizabeth’s.

As far as calling this book funny, there were a few moments during the cooking show portion of the book that were unique, but I certainly didn’t think of this book as a comedy. The advertising for Lessons in Chemistry reads as a rom-com and the tone of the book just doesn’t fit this description. The book does have important themes that highlight social issues of the time, but it’s terribly sad—it might be one of the saddest books I’ve read this year, if ever. I’m not sure why Garmus’ PR team marketed this the way they did as it’s certainly misleading. That being said, had this book been depicted as a historical fiction re-telling of social causes in STEM, I would have perhaps looked at it differently going into it. Yet, the bright cover and the cute, animated Elizabeth on the front would have readers thinking in a different direction.


I didn’t love Lessons in Chemistry. I thought Elizabeth was an unreliable protagonist and she makes rash decisions that affect her own well-being throughout the timeline. In addition to this, there is SO much male-bashing and religion-bashing in this book, that I found myself frustrated with Elizabeth’s constant negative perspective, especially for someone who insisted that she had so many far-reaching goals.

The one aspect I absolutely loved about this book was the dog, Six-Thirty. While his name is absolutely atrocious, my understanding is that the author’s own personal dog is named 99, so perhaps it was her way of weaving her own life into Elizabeth’s. Either way, Six-thirty is the intelligent LOGICAL character this book needed. He is selfless and loving in all the best ways and he’s truly what keeps Elizabeth and her daughter on track. I absolutely loved Six-Thirty and I think his perspective is the voice that many readers give their own dogs. Truly, I would have enjoyed the book entirely written from his perspective as I looked forward to the passages that he narrated.

Overall, I don’t think that Bonnie Garmus’ book was for me. Lessons in Chemistry highlights some important social inequalities during the 1950s and 1960s, but there are a lot of inaccuracies reflected through the characters in this book, which makes me wonder how many of the events were realistic, as well.

If you are familiar with the timeline of this novel or have studied women in STEM, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the stories Elizabeth tells and the things that she goes through. Do you feel her character was realistic? Leave a comment below and let me know!

If you’re interested in purchasing this book for yourself, you can check it out on Amazon by clicking here.

Not sure what to read next? Check out my last review on Agatha of Little Neon by clicking here!

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Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is a dazzling story about one woman’s fight against misogyny.

I try to read many of the celebrity book club picks and after finishing True Biz by Sara Novic (Reese’s April Book Club Pick), I decided to try Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (GMA April Book Club Pick). I’ve seen so many glowing reviews for the novel and my expectations were sky high. And it delivered. I quite enjoyed it and I thought the ending is extremely satisfying.

But I will say it did take me a bit to get into the story. Longer than I expected. I actually felt the story really took off when the TV cooking show part began.

What’s the Story About

Lessons in Chemistry follows Elizabeth Zott: a one-of-a-kind scientist in 1960s California whose career takes a detour when she becomes the unlikely star of a beloved TV cooking show.

Elizabeth has dealt with it all. Plenty of misogyny and people doubting her skills. All she wants to do is work on her scientific research but the patriarchy keeps standing in her way. Everything changes for Elizabeth when the most unlikely event happens—she falls in love with a fellow scientist, Calvin. 

But as life is unpredictable, Elizabeth eventually finds herself as a single mother and without a job. Through an extraordinary set of events, she ends up becoming the host of a TV cooking show. And while she takes cooking very seriously, she also embarks plenty of lessons to her mostly female audience.

Elizabeth’s Story

Elizabeth is such an engaging protagonist. I don’t think I’ve ever read one quite like her before. She’s extremely serious and to the point. She’s very intelligent and tired of dealing with other people’s bad behavior. Elizabeth shows her vulnerable side only on rare occasions.

While the story is quirky and the writing is clever and humorous at parts, there are some serious topics addressed. Including a couple scenes that deserve a trigger warning, which I did not anticipate. I do think the cover, while cute, is a bit misleading in some ways.

I liked reading about Elizabeth’s journey and what she is able to overcome is inspiring. However, I would have liked to have seen more scenes with her daughter. And I do think it took too long to arrive at the TV show component.

I will say, the supporting cast is outstanding—probably one of the best I’ve read in a long time.

Supper at Six

You’ll be entertained by how Elizabeth got herself a cooking show! And she does not want to follow any direction from her producer, Walter. She takes matters in her own hands and combines her love and knowledge of chemistry to teach her audience how to cook and much more. Each episode serves as a life lesson of some sorts.

I felt this part was so vivid that it almost felt like it was a real show! I can’t only imagine the impact if a show like this had existed in the ’60s.

All in all, I really liked the novel. Not a perfect execution but I do think it’s a unique and very entertaining story.

For book clubs, check out my discussion questions here .

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The show became so real I almost began to search the TV schedule for the time! I liked the "Children set the table" sign off.

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  • Book to Screen

‘Lessons in Chemistry’: The Science Is Shaky

BY David Rapp • Oct. 12, 2023

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In Bonnie Garmus’ bestselling 2022 novel, Lessons in Chemistry , brilliant research chemist Elizabeth Zott becomes the host of a smash-hit TV cooking show for a local TV station in Southern California in the early 1960s. It’s now been adapted as an eight-episode miniseries starring Oscar winner Brie Larson; its first two episodes premiere on Apple TV+ on Oct. 13.

Garmus’ novel tells of how Zott, along with her Nobel Prize–nominated research partner and lover, Calvin Evans, were doing research on abiogenesis—vaguely described as “the theory that life arose from simplistic, nonlife forms”—when tragedy struck in the mid-’50s. As a result, Zott was fired from her job by her sexist supervisor, and she found herself alone, unemployed, and pregnant with Evans’ child. Over the next few years, she barely made ends meet as a single mother by doing freelance work for other scientists. A chance encounter with the father of one her daughter’s classmates—a TV executive—results in her getting a well-paid job hosting a cooking show that focuses on science; as she points out, cooking is all about chemical reactions, after all.

Supper at Six is astoundingly popular, as Zott manages to make abstruse chemistry concepts accessible to a general audience. Readers must take this on faith, however, as Garmus doesn’t portray much of Zott’s teaching method on the page—probably because it would make readers’ eyes glaze over. At one point, for instance, a member of Zott’s studio audience asks her a question: “Last week when you said osmosis was the movement of a less concentrated solvent through a semipermeable membrane to another more concentrated solvent, I found myself wondering….” Maybe there’s an audience for this sort of thing, but it’s fair to say that it’s not a large or enthusiastic one.

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

The problem is that this message in couched in science that’s frequently wrong or nonsensical, as multiple critics, including science writer Ricki Lewis, pointed out last year . It also features a main character who embodies the cliché that scientists are humorless and have no social skills. It’s no surprise to read, in an promotional interview , that Garmus has little science expertise; she relied mainly on a 1950s textbook for those rare occasions in which chemistry—a term that, it bears mentioning, appears in the book’s title—comes into play.  This results in some odd moments; for instance, Zott, live on air, tosses a sponsor’s soup into the trash because “it’s full of chemicals.…Feed enough of it to your loved ones and they’ll eventually die off, saving you tons of time since you won’t have to feed them anymore.” The idea that canned soup in the ’60s was full of added chemicals is untrue, and even if it was, Zott is a chemist —someone who would more likely see things like chemical preservatives as a boon. At another point, Zott notes that she and her lover “had chemistry. Actual chemistry”—a phrase that any true chemist would find corny in the extreme.

Other aspects of the novel simply feel as if Garmus didn’t do her research; for example, readers are supposed to believe that Zott could continue to have a show in the ’60s after announcing on-air that she’s an atheist. The author also depicts Life magazine—a publication that wasn’t exactly known for celebrity hit pieces —publishing a brutal takedown of Zott.

The new miniseries, created by Lee Eisenberg ( Jury Duty ), excises the atheism and the Life article, and plays down some of the book’s wackier moments, such as interludes from the perspective of Zott’s dog, who’s named Six-Thirty, due to a quirky misunderstanding. (Zott’s precocious daughter’s name is Mad, by the way—also due to a quirky misunderstanding.)

The show makes a few other improvements, as well. It reveals Zott’s backstory with a subtlety that the book lacks, for example, and provides a new, welcome subplot involving a character of color. Its sets and costumes are all stellar, as well. However, the show is just as vague as the novel is about the science at its core, and it has its protagonist improbably condemning not only canned soup but also vegetable shortening. Most of the rest of book carries over intact—including a bizarre subplot about Evans’ parentage that feels jarringly soap-operatic. By far the best element of the miniseries is Larson, whose skilled, nuanced performance brings Zott to vivid life—which is fortunate, as she’s onscreen for most of the series’ runtime. Lewis Pullman ( Catch-22 ), as Evans, is also quite good, bringing unexpected emotionality to his odd-bird character. Indeed, it’s a shame that Larson and Pullman’s time together is so brief, as their portrayal of the couple’s sweet relationship make the early episodes worth watching; once they’re separated, the show never quite recovers. One might be tempted to say they have chemistry. Actual chemistry.

David Rapp is the senior Indie editor .

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nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

  • Entertainment
  • <i>Lessons in Chemistry</i> Feels Like a Remedial Course in Feminist History

Lessons in Chemistry Feels Like a Remedial Course in Feminist History

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

E lizabeth Zott is not like other girls. In fact, maybe don’t call her a girl. The heroine of Lessons in Chemistry is an adult woman and a brilliant chemist whose relentlessly logical mind demands precision. Also, with good reason, she doesn’t take kindly to being infantilized. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s story—as told in Bonnie Garmus’ wildly popular 2022 novel and a new, eight-part Apple TV+ series starring Brie Larson —takes place in the 1950s. So you can be sure she’ll have to endure a whole heap of sexism to get the respect, let alone the career, she deserves.

Your enjoyment of Apple’s sometimes charming but more often didactic, weirdly unfocused adaptation, premiering Oct. 13, is likely to vary depending on whether you find stories about plucky underdogs triumphing over adversity inspiring or exhausting. Personally, I’m not sure American women are in a position to look back at the overt misogyny (and, elsewhere in Chemistry , racism and homophobia) of the recent past as an obstacle course we can congratulate ourselves for clearing. Then again, maybe that’s not the show’s intention at all. For all its preaching to the converted—and all its invocations of elemental conflicts, like science vs. religion and self vs. community— Chemistry leaves its most ambitious questions unanswered.

To the extent that series works, it’s because Larson so thoroughly inhabits Elizabeth. A genius with little use for social conventions or niceties, the character is confident without being arrogant, and somewhat awkward in disposition but ultimately charming in her authenticity. (Many readers have speculated that Elizabeth is on the autism spectrum.) Her stiff comportment loosens up as her initially lonely existence gives way to a number of meaningful relationships. This subtle transformation, even more than her rise from disrespected lab tech to unlikely cooking-show sensation, forms the through-line of a narrative prone to clumsy digressions.

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

Although we’ll eventually witness her sad childhood as a preacher’s daughter in ’30s Alabama, Elizabeth’s story begins at the Hastings Research Institute in Southern California. A chemist with a Master’s from UCLA, she performs menial lab chores for mediocre men whose dialogue comes straight out of Ye Olde Chauvinist’s Book of Commonplaces : “A smile once in a while wouldn’t hurt.” “Sweetheart, I could use another cup o’ joe.” Etc. They all but force her to compete in a humiliating “Little Miss Hastings” beauty pageant. As if that wasn’t enough oppression for one woman, Chemistry piles on a layer of sexual trauma. It turns out that Elizabeth never got her PhD because she refused to apologize to the advisor she stabbed (with a pencil) to thwart his (nauseatingly energetic) attempt to rape her (after a qualifying exam).

Things finally start to look up when she meets Hastings’ other oddball. A chemist of national renown, Calvin Evans ( Outer Range ’s Lewis Pullman) has the influence to indulge his eccentricities—hence the private lab, where he hops in the safety shower after jogging to work. Like Elizabeth, he speaks the terse language of the constitutionally rational. And he sees that the research she’s surreptitiously conducting has the potential to break ground. He’s baffled to learn that sexism has kept her from advancing in a supposedly meritocratic field. “Why would someone discriminate based on something as intellectually non-determinative as gender?” Calvin wonders. (Why indeed!) So he invites her to work alongside him. Soon, they fall in love.

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

Fast-forward seven years and several spoiler-y twists of fate, and an unemployed Elizabeth—a talented cook who treats the kitchen like a lab—stumbles upon a big opportunity. A local TV station needs a cooking-show host, and though she doesn’t exactly crave fame, she needs the money. Her presence on Supper at 6 , where she calls ingredients by their chemical names and takes the preparation of food seriously as work, is something utterly new. And she usually has the fortitude to defy a piggish executive (played by Rainn Wilson ) who wants her to endorse shoddy sponsor products and has ideas like: “At the end of each show, she should make her husband a cocktail.” Men tend to hate Supper , but women love it. Elizabeth becomes a celebrity.

This is easily the most intriguing facet of her story. In one memorable scene, during an on-air Q&A with her adoring studio audience, a housewife asks a perceptive question about human biochemistry. Elizabeth senses that the woman has the aptitude to become a physician, and tells her so. Months later, the fan returns to say she’s enrolled in medical school. While this particular sequence of events feels a bit pat, the show is most original when it’s imagining the effect a woman as intelligent, self-assured, and liberated as Elizabeth might have on less extraordinary women, who may be too ensconced in their gender roles to aspire to a life outside the home. But Chemistry hops around too much to explore this aspect of her fame in any depth.

Episodes meander away from one another, cordoned off by puzzling one-off stylistic and structural decisions. One is narrated by Elizabeth’s dog, Six-Thirty (he’s named after the time at which he wakes her up every morning). Another spends an inordinate amount of time with a little girl we’re led to believe is someone she turns out not to be; the payoff of this misdirection is negligible. A coincidence-driven dive into Calvin’s childhood derails Elizabeth’s arc too late in the series, which has the effect of rushing the central story towards an overly tidy conclusion.

nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

This lack of focus extends to characters and themes, as well. A woman introduced as a traitor to her gender returns, fully reformed, a few episodes later. Calvin’s neighbor Harriet Sloan (Aja Naomi King from How to Get Away With Murder ) comes into the picture early. A bright legal aide, she’s organizing members of their largely Black, middle-class enclave in a campaign to stop the construction of a freeway through the community—one that local politicians have labeled “blighted” despite its obvious affluence. Yet neither her crusade nor her family are well integrated into the central narrative. Often, her presence feels like a test of Calvin or Elizabeth’s allyship. “You’re always talking about the things that keep women down, but who does that include?” she asks Elizabeth. It doesn’t help that the end of her story line is so abrupt.

Chemistry clearly wants to wrestle with big, important ideas. But if Greta Gerwig ’s Barbie was Feminism 101, this adult-oriented drama is teaching lessons about social justice better suited to middle school. Unlike the fascinatingly flawed heroine of The Queen’s Gambit , another exceptional-woman saga set in the mid-20th century, Elizabeth comes across as too perfect, too good, too pure. The same goes for Harriet. They are women’s liberation and, in Harriet’s case, the civil rights movement, run through the fine-mesh sieve of respectability politics. Elizabeth and Calvin’s empirically minded atheism is often challenged by Christian characters—some generous true believers and others cruel charlatans. But the show never satisfyingly synthesizes these conversations. It lets the question of how faith and science can coexist hang.

In the end, Elizabeth does a lot of talking about “the inevitability of change.” This takeaway suggests that the outlandishness of many twists—and the series’ hyperactive structure—were intentional. I don’t doubt it, but TV drama is a narrative medium, and a better show would have found a way to craft a cohesive one about the randomness of life. It would have made space to fully investigate complicated themes, instead of dropping them into the void. It would’ve given us a complex protagonist, not an avatar of righteousness designed to star in adversity porn. Maybe that’s expecting too much from the TV adaptation of last year’s biggest beach read. Something tells me, though, that Elizabeth Zott would prefer honest scrutiny to polite condescension.  

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Reviews of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Summary | Excerpt | Reading Guide | Reviews | Beyond the book | Read-Alikes | Genres & Themes | Author Bio

Lessons in Chemistry

by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

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nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

About this Book

  • Reading Guide

Book Summary

A must-read debut! Meet Elizabeth Zott: a "formidable, unapologetic and inspiring" (Parade) scientist in 1960s California whose career takes a detour when she becomes the unlikely star of a beloved TV cooking show in this novel that is "irresistible, satisfying and full of fuel. It reminds you that change takes time and always requires heat" (The New York Times Book Review).

New York Times Bestseller • Good Morning America Book Club • One of NPR's Best Books of 2022 • One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year—New York Times, Bustle, Real Simple, Parade, CNN, Today, E! News, Library Journal Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it's the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel–prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with—of all things—her mind. True chemistry results. But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America's most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth's unusual approach to cooking ("combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride") proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn't just teaching women to cook. She's daring them to change the status quo. Laugh-out-loud funny, shrewdly observant, and studded with a dazzling cast of supporting characters, Lessons in Chemistry is as original and vibrant as its protagonist.

Chapter 1 November 1961

Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbeltless cars without giving it a second thought; back before anyone knew there'd even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over. Despite that certainty, she made her way to the lab to pack her daughter's lunch. Fuel for learning, Elizabeth Zott wrote on a small slip of paper before tucking it into her daughter's lunch box. Then she paused, her pencil in midair, as if reconsidering. Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win, she wrote on another slip. Then she paused again, tapping her pencil ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  • The late 1950s into the early 1960s was supposedly a halcyon time in American history. But was it? The war was over and men returned home to take back the jobs women had done in their absence. As a result, women were pushed into more subservient roles. What influences played a part in encouraging women to accept their place as only in the home? And why, in today's world, when women are in the workforce in record numbers, are they still doing most of the housework and child-raising?
  • Elizabeth Zott had no formal education, and yet she was able to self-educate, thanks to her library card. With the advent of technology, the library almost seems outdated, though many would argue that the library is more important than ever. Do you think ...
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Reader reviews, bookbrowse review.

Bonnie Garmus's debut, Lessons in Chemistry, introduces readers to an exceptional woman struggling to succeed in a male-dominated field. Garmus sets her novel in the days before the Equal Rights Amendment and the #MeToo movement, when most men — and many women as well — believed that any woman who dared to enter a traditional men's profession was either "a lightweight or a gold digger," in the author's words. One might assume the novel is a dark, weighty exploration of the sexual discrimination rampant during the 1950s and early 1960s. Amazingly, it's really not; although the book's substance depends largely on this theme, its overall tone is positive and affirming... continued

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(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs ).

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Beyond the Book

A short history of the cooking show.

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  • Genres & Themes

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nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

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Bonnie Garmus

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Lessons in Chemistry: The multi-million-copy bestseller

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Lessons in Chemistry: The multi-million-copy bestseller Kindle Edition

  • Print length 392 pages
  • Language English
  • Sticky notes On Kindle Scribe
  • Publisher Transworld Digital
  • Publication date April 5, 2022
  • File size 2158 KB
  • Page Flip Enabled
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nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

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  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B099JC5HQK
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Transworld Digital (April 5, 2022)
  • Publication date ‏ : ‎ April 5, 2022
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 2158 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Sticky notes ‏ : ‎ On Kindle Scribe
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 392 pages
  • #67 in 20th Century Historical Romance (Books)
  • #145 in General Humorous Fiction
  • #210 in Women's Literary Fiction

About the author

Bonnie garmus.

Bonnie Garmus is a copywriter and creative director who has worked for a wide range of clients, in the US and abroad, focusing primarily on technology, medicine, and education. She’s an open water swimmer, a rower, and mother to two pretty amazing daughters. Most recently from Seattle, she currently lives in London with her husband and her dog, 99.

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Brie Larson Tries Her Best to Recreate the Magic of ‘Lessons in Chemistry’


The Brie Larson-led Apple TV+ series falls short of recreating the magic of Bonnie Garmus’ NYT best-selling novel.

Fletcher Peters

Fletcher Peters

Entertainment Reporter

Brie Larson standing in a kitchen in 'Lessons in Chemistry'

In Lessons in Chemistry , a small pan of lasagna sparks a revolution. Baked with love and an astute detail to the tiny chemical explosions that melt the cheese, soften the long noodles, and combine the ingredients, that lasagna gives Elizabeth Zott ( Brie Larson ) a full-time gig at her local news network as their resident Ina Garten .

Or rather, their Julia Child —because we’re in the 1960s, when a woman’s job is to raise her children, clean the house, and stay stationed in the kitchen while her husband is away. Lessons in Chemistry , a new Apple TV+ series based on Bonnie Garmus’ NYT bestseller of the same name follows a fierce woman chemist who dares to challenge those norms while also, oddly enough, embracing them. Elizabeth Zott’s place is in the kitchen—not because she’s a woman but, rather, because she simply loves to cook.

As soon as we meet Elizabeth, who has become host of fictional ’60s cooking show Supper at Six , we’re transported back in time to the 1950s. Lessons in Chemistry will get back to Elizabeth’s days as a TV host, but for the first four episodes, the series focuses on her career as an assistant chemist at the Hastings laboratory in Los Angeles. Elizabeth is one of the best chemists in the lab—not the best chemist; that title belongs to the closed-off Calvin Evans ( Lewis Pullman )—but no one trusts any woman enough to give her the opportunities she deserves. Women are secretaries, not scientists.

Elizabeth does what she can to succeed at Hastings, despite the roadblocks. She makes some progress on her own research after hours. No one cares enough about her to actually pay attention to her, but because no one is giving her the time of day, they don’t stop her, either. That is, until she steals a few beakers from golden boy Calvin’s lab, resulting in tensions between the two. He accidentally calls her a secretary—she’s a woman, after all—and Elizabeth assumes Calvin is another misogynistic creep to avoid around the office. But then, something strange happens: Calvin finds out Elizabeth is a lab assistant, and he actually apologizes .

Soon enough, their feud becomes an enemies-to-lovers storyline. Calvin and Elizabeth’s romance is quick, charming, and entrancing. Lessons in Chemistry TV show recreates the book’s captivating love story with a bit more sparkle, thanks to Larson and Pullman’s connection. But the romance is over almost as quickly as it began—no spoilers as to why—leaving Elizabeth an uphill battle to continue her research and sort out her personal life. While the romance is the most exciting part of the story, Lessons in Chemistry doesn’t slump when Calvin is out of the picture.

Eventually, Elizabeth is fired from Hastings and given the opportunity of a lifetime when offered a job at Supper at Six , where she’s asked to host a cooking show for mothers around the nation. This part of the story, where we watch Elizabeth empower 1960s housewives into getting degrees and following their dreams while still having nightly dinner ready for the family, is the powerhouse of Lessons in Chemistry .

The marvelous show-within-a-show allows Elizabeth to express her feminist beliefs—that women should have their own lives, and although Elizabeth loves to prepare dinner, that doesn’t make it every woman’s dream—while also being a gorgeous ’60s spectacle. Elizabeth sports a lab coat with a collar embroidered in glimmering green sequins; she designs a special kitchen for herself; and although we don’t get to see too much of the food, hearing her talk about bubbling chicken pot pies is satisfying enough. It’s like watching Julia Child’s show, while also seeing another, more dramatic story play out in the background.

While the love story and the cooking scenes are delightful to watch (because who doesn’t adore a good romance and some delectable dishes), the rest of Lessons in Chemistry droops. Garmus wrote her novel so cinematically that, when actually adapted, there’s no room for creative liberty. Elizabeth’s neighbor Harriet (Aja Naomi King) gets a new storyline, and a handful of chapters are cut from the overall plot, but if you’ve already read the book, you know everything to expect from Lessons in Chemistry . It’s almost as if the show is too afraid to deviate from the beloved source material, at the expense of expanding on these brilliant characters.

Because of that, Lessons in Chemistry may be a show that’s better fit for people who haven’t read the book, rather than avid fans who have been waiting to watch an adaptation. Larson tries to find new ways to invigorate the source material, and she perfectly embodies Elizabeth. But with nothing new to learn or love about Elizabeth, the series falls short of the book’s greatness and originality.

That said, folks who didn’t pick up the zeitgeisty novel can now take in the story in a new, quicker format. Lessons in Chemistry is such a thrilling tale that, even though it doesn’t triumph over the book—and adaptations rarely do—there’s still an endearing mix of mystery, romance, comedy, and drama worth watching. Lessons in Chemistry is no lesson in adaptation, but that doesn’t stop the series from being a mildly good time.

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BOOK REVIEW: China Room & Lessons In Chemistry Busy Black Mums Do Read

Two great books in this episode, both historical fiction. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota is a story about a young girl married to a man she doesn't know. It explores generational trauma, racism and tradition. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is truly a book in its own league. Following the story of an aspiring Chemist whose dreams of becoming a well respected Scientist is thwarted at every turn. Azeeza discusses her favourite and not so favourite things about both books and why you should add them to your to be read pile. For more reviews and content, follow us @Busyblackmumsdoreadpodcast or email us [email protected].

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Supported by

Steve Gleason’s Unflinching Memoir of Living With A.L.S.

In “A Life Impossible,” the former N.F.L. player opens up about outliving his life expectancy — the challenges, loneliness and moments of joy.

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In this photo, Steve Gleason is sitting in a motorized wheelchair, facing a screen, on the sidelines of a football game. He is smiling.

By Buzz Bissinger

Buzz Bissinger is the author of “Friday Night Lights” and “The Mosquito Bowl.”

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A LIFE IMPOSSIBLE: Living With ALS: Finding Peace and Wisdom Within a Fragile Existence, by Steve Gleason with Jeff Duncan

After you turn 70, as I will this year, any celebration will be muted by an ever-increasing awareness of mortality. I fear death, but what I fear even more is the way in which I’ll die. I hope it’s a heart attack in the dark of night — quick and painless, here today, gone tomorrow.

I’m terrified that the cause will be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It fundamentally destroys the nervous system, not all at once but in excruciating steps, leading to loss of muscle and the inability to speak, swallow or breathe on your own, constipation, drooling: You name it, A.L.S. will destroy it. The one area not affected is your brain. You understand what’s happening; you’re conscious of every indignity and humiliation until you die, usually within two to five years of diagnosis.

Which leads us to Steve Gleason’s memoir, “A Life Impossible,” written with Jeff Duncan. More than a decade after learning he had A.L.S. at the age of 33, Gleason has survived with the help of faith, resilience and the support of his wife, Michel, who has endured her own share of suffering.

I greatly admire “A Life Impossible” — its unflinching honesty and candor — but I’m not sure I am better off for reading it. Sometimes, ignorance is a mercy.

Gleason was a football player from Spokane, Wash., one of those athletes who supplemented his talent with a relentless work ethic, measuring himself by how much pain he could withstand, the more the better. He went to Washington State University, where he was a star linebacker on a team that went to the Rose Bowl. He wasn’t drafted but several teams expressed interest in signing him. For eight years, until his retirement in 2008, Gleason played on special teams with the New Orleans Saints, making his presence felt on every kicking play.

He was a physical kamikaze, fighting off blocks to get to kickoff and punt returners, all at blazing speed, a magnet for pain and adrenaline. He led the team in special teams tackles for several years and was named to ESPN’s All-Pro team for his performance during the 2002 season. But when the Saints returned to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, Gleason made a career-defining play: On the very first series of downs, he blocked a punt by the Atlanta Falcons that led to a Saints touchdown. It was an electrifying moment for New Orleans.

Unfortunately, Gleason’s post-football career wasn’t quite as triumphant. He lost $1 million in a series of ill-advised real estate investments, but then became determined to rebuild his financial life. Self-pity doesn’t appear to be part of Gleason’s vocabulary; the harder the challenge, the more he reveled in beating it.

Until Jan. 5, 2011, when he was diagnosed with A.L.S. after experiencing involuntary muscle twitches in his arms and shoulder. Over a period of years the disease wormed its way into Gleason’s body, reaching a point where he was unable to move, swallow, breathe or eat on his own, ultimately requiring a ventilator and feeding tube. He did learn to communicate using eye-tracking technology on a computer tablet and a “letter board” that facilitates communication via eye movements.

“My body is a prison,” Gleason writes. “I face insurmountable adversity each day, yet my family and I are able to survive within this miraculous, wonderful life. And I have learned to accept things that are out of my control, to transform suffering into strength.”

He does have advantages. He has used ongoing attention from the likes of Bill Gates to raise millions for Team Gleason, which is dedicated to helping people live with A.L.S. and finding a cure that currently does not exist.

The most moving parts of the book are the journal entries and emails between Gleason and his wife.

On their sixth anniversary, Michel wrote: “I worry about our future. I wonder how long you’ll be here, how old I’ll be when you are gone and if I’ll be too old to find someone else?”

Gleason’s response: “If I die before you, l hope you find someone to grow old with, or maybe find someone now, is that crazy?”

Gleason tends to wax poetic at times, quoting from the likes of Hermann Hesse, Pearl Jam, Yuval Noah Harari, Dave Grohl, Maynard James Keenan and Marcus Aurelius. Ultimately, though, Gleason is a symbol of resilience, hope and optimism. There are lessons to be drawn from “A Life Impossible”; some will undoubtedly come away from it with a message of uplift, and I should be among them. But as I turned each page with one eye shut and the rest of my body cringing, my greatest takeaway is that my fear of A.L.S. has only heightened.

I am not Steve Gleason. I don’t have the strength. How many out there really do?

A LIFE IMPOSSIBLE : Living With ALS: Finding Peace and Wisdom Within a Fragile Existence | By Steve Gleason with Jeff Duncan | Knopf | 288 pp. | $30

Explore More in Books

Want to know about the best books to read and the latest news start here..

The complicated, generous life  of Paul Auster, who died on April 30 , yielded a body of work of staggering scope and variety .

“Real Americans,” a new novel by Rachel Khong , follows three generations of Chinese Americans as they all fight for self-determination in their own way .

“The Chocolate War,” published 50 years ago, became one of the most challenged books in the United States. Its author, Robert Cormier, spent years fighting attempts to ban it .

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Each week, top authors and critics join the Book Review’s podcast to talk about the latest news in the literary world. Listen here .


  1. Review: Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

    nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

  2. Lessons in Chemistry (Book Review)

    nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

  3. BOOK REVIEW: Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

    nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

  4. Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

    nyt book review of lessons in chemistry

  5. Lessons in Chemistry Book Review (Bonnie Garmus)

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    nyt book review of lessons in chemistry


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  1. Book Review: "Lessons in Chemistry," by Bonnie Garmus

    To file Elizabeth Zott among the pink razors of the book world is to miss the sharpness of Garmus's message. "Lessons in Chemistry" will make you wonder about all the real-life women born ...

  2. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus review

    Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus review - the right comic formula. A tale of female disempowerment in the 50s and 60s gets a culinary tweak in this sweet revenge comedy. E very now and ...

  3. Lessons in Chemistry is the biggest debut novel of the past year. Here

    Books Why Lessons in Chemistry Is the Biggest Debut Novel of the Past Year ... on the New York Times bestseller list for 58 weeks and counting. Last November, the Times noted that it was "on ...

  4. Book Review: 'Lessons in Chemistry' by Bonnie Garmus

    Lessons in Chemistry might be an easy, 'feel-good' read, so to speak, but its one with teeth. (Not long teeth, or even especially sharp ones, but teeth nonetheless.) bonnie garmus women's fiction book reviews fiction reviews five star reads. I'm always wary of books that have been hyped up to the nth degree, since very rarely do they live ...

  5. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

    #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • GOODREADS CHOICE AWARD WINNER • Meet Elizabeth Zott: a "formidable, unapologetic and inspiring" (PARADE) scientist in 1960s California whose career takes a detour when she becomes the unlikely star of a beloved TV cooking show in this novel that is "irresistible, satisfying and full of fuel" (The New York Times Book Review) and "witty, sometimes ...

  6. Lessons in Chemistry

    Lessons in Chemistry is a New York Times bestselling book that was adapted and recently released as a stylish AppleTV+ series starring Brie Larson. The book has a "young adult" energy about it. And first-time author Bonnie Garmus uses a compelling female protagonist and an early 1960s setting to create a memorable feminist fantasy.

  7. Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus book review

    Garmus's novel 'Lessons in Chemistry' delivers an assured voice, an indelible heroine and relatable love stories. Review by Karen Heller. April 5, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. EDT. (Doubleday; Serena ...

  8. A chemist has a cooking show in author Bonnie Garmus' 'Lessons In ...

    Bonnie Garmus' new novel Lessons In Chemistry has been getting a lot of buzz. Elizabeth Zott is a talented chemist but because it's the 1960s she faces sexism in her quest to work as a scientist.

  9. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus audiobook review

    Moving between comedy and tragedy, Lessons in Chemistry is a powerful and entertaining portrait of a woman battling misogyny and visiting revenge on those who wish to silence her.

  10. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus review

    No wonder this funny, big-hearted debut sparked a publishing war and is coming soon to a television near you. I n Southern California in 1961, Elizabeth Zott, the singular protagonist of this ...


    LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY. by Bonnie Garmus ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 5, 2022. A more adorable plea for rationalism and gender equality would be hard to find. Two chemists with major chemistry, a dog with a big vocabulary, and a popular cooking show are among the elements of this unusual compound. At the dawn of the 1960s, Elizabeth Zott finds herself ...

  12. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: Review & Summary

    I only recommend the products I love and trust. Book Title: Lessons in Chemistry. Number of Pages: 400. Lessons in Chemistry Audiobook Narrated by: Bonnie Garmus, Miranda Raison, Pandora Sykes. Listening Length: 11 hours and 55 minutes. Goodreads rating: 4.35 (507,523 ratings) Published in: 2022. Lessons in Chemistry Book Summary.

  13. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: 9780385547345

    News, Library Journal "In Garmus's debut novel, a frustrated chemist finds herself at the helm of a cooking show that sparks a revolution. Welcome to the 1960s, where a woman's arsenal of tools was often limited to the kitchen—and where Elizabeth Zott is hellbent on overturning the status quo one meal at a time.".

  14. Lessons in Chemistry By Bonnie Garmus-ATLP Book Review

    Reviewed by The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, Lessons in Chemistry is certainly a book that has gained speed quickly. Set in California in the 1960s, Lessons in Chemistry is the story of Elizabeth Zott. Zott is a female scientist on an all-male research team in a time where women were more often housewives than chemists.

  15. Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

    Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is a dazzling story about one woman's fight against misogyny.. I try to read many of the celebrity book club picks and after finishing True Biz by Sara Novic (Reese's April Book Club Pick), I decided to try Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (GMA April Book Club Pick). I've seen so many glowing reviews for the novel and my expectations were sky high.

  16. 'Lessons in Chemistry': The Science Is Shaky

    In Bonnie Garmus' bestselling 2022 novel, Lessons in Chemistry, brilliant research chemist Elizabeth Zott becomes the host of a smash-hit TV cooking show for a local TV station in Southern California in the early 1960s.It's now been adapted as an eight-episode miniseries starring Oscar winner Brie Larson; its first two episodes premiere on Apple TV+ on Oct. 13.

  17. Courtney's review of Lessons in Chemistry

    Courtney 's review. Jun 08, 2023. it was amazing. bookshelves: summer-reading-2023, recommended. Loved this book! I initially had trouble taking a leap of faith with Lessons in Chemistry because it read like a rinse-and-repeat NYT bestseller template and had a lot of what I've started calling "bash you over the head feminism", i.e., the theme ...

  18. Lessons in Chemistry Is a Shallow Portrait of Genius: Review

    October 13, 2023 7:00 AM EDT. E lizabeth Zott is not like other girls. In fact, maybe don't call her a girl. The heroine of Lessons in Chemistry is an adult woman and a brilliant chemist whose ...

  19. Reviews of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

    Bonnie Garmus's debut, Lessons in Chemistry, introduces readers to an exceptional woman struggling to succeed in a male-dominated field. Garmus sets her novel in the days before the Equal Rights Amendment and the #MeToo movement, when most men — and many women as well — believed that any woman who dared to enter a traditional men's profession was either "a lightweight or a gold digger," in ...

  20. Lessons in Chemistry: The multi-million-copy bestseller

    THE #1 SUNDAY TIMES and #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER The multi-million copy bestseller As read on BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime Winner of the Goodreads Choice Best Debut Novel Award British Book Awards Author of the Year 'Sparky, rip-roaring, funny, with big-hearted fully formed, loveable characters' SUNDAY TIMES ' The most charming, life-enhancing novel I've read in ages.

  21. 'Lessons in Chemistry' Review: Lacking the Same Flavor as the Bestseller

    Lessons in Chemistry TV show recreates the book's captivating love story with a bit more sparkle, thanks to Larson and Pullman's connection. But the romance is over almost as quickly as it ...

  22. ‎Busy Black Mums Do Read: BOOK REVIEW: China Room & Lessons In

    Two great books in this episode, both historical fiction. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota is a story about a young girl married to a man she doesn't know. It explores generational trauma, racism and tradition. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is truly a book in its own league. Following the story…

  23. Book Review: 'A Life Impossible,' by Steve Gleason

    In "A Life Impossible," the former N.F.L. player opens up about outliving his life expectancy — the challenges, loneliness and moments of joy.