Chemistry Lessons Review by Bonnie Garmus – The Right Comedy Formula | Fiction
Every every now and then a first novel pops up in a flurry of trendy and big-name TV offerings, and before the first chapter ends, you do a little air-punch because for once everything is completely justified . Course in chemistry, from former editor Bonnie Garmus, is that rare beast; a polished, funny and thought-provoking story, carrying its research lightly but confidently, and with sentences so elegantly twisted it’s hard to believe it’s a start.
Since the success of The Queen’s Bet and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, there was a resurgence of interest in the stories of trailblazing women struggling to prove themselves in traditionally male arenas in the years – late 1950s and early 1960s – before second-wave feminism took off. . Elizabeth Zott, the heroine of Course in chemistry, firmly following in their footsteps; the book also nods to TV chef Julia Child’s rediscovery as a trailblazer, and even echoes breaking Badis Walter White in Elizabeth’s mantra: “Chemistry is change.”
As the novel opens in 1961, Elizabeth is a 30-year-old single mother and the reluctant, “permanently depressed” star of a housewife cooking show called Supper at Six. By training, she is a research chemist, though her academic career has crumbled despite her obvious talent, and as the story goes back 10 years, we understand why. Women scientists are viewed with suspicion by their male colleagues; From her earliest undergraduate days, Elizabeth was the subject of attacks on her reputation and person, from the most serious – sexual assault and theft of her work – to the occasional daily misogyny inflicted by people, including other women, who see his independence and stubbornness as a threat. Even when she reunites with her soul mate, Nobel Prize-nominated chemist Calvin Evans, their happiness is an added spur to jealous and doomed rivals.
Despite taking up the TV gig to pay the bills after being fired from her research institute, Elizabeth is initiating a quiet revolution, using her platform to speak directly to millions of housewives about their own capacity for change. Garmus’ great skill here is crafting a richly comedic novel around a completely deadpan character to whom pretty dreadful things happen: “She wasn’t defined by what she did, but by what the others have done.” The comedy exists in the gap between Elizabeth’s calm but stubborn refusal to be less than herself and the determination of those around her to squeeze her into an acceptable mold.
There are, inevitably, some flaws in the first novel: the narrative perspective skips too often, loafing with minor characters while its strength lies in Elizabeth’s inner life. There’s a semi-magical-realistic streak to Elizabeth’s unnaturally perceptive dog’s perspective, which some readers may find charming and eccentric and others somewhat grating. But Garmus understands the importance of a satisfying resolution; if her revenge comedy relies a little too much on coincidence, it’s all part of the larger-than-life Technicolor world she’s created. It’s easy to see how easily the story will translate to the screen, but the real fun of the novel lies in the dry wit of Garmus’ writing.