Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

My wife and I share a digital library account, so I sometimes end up listening to the audiobooks that she checks out. I don’t know if she’s ever listened to a book I checked out, but one of these days I’ll get her. This book was one of hers. I’m glad I picked it up!

Lessons in Chemistry is a feminist criticism of sexism in science, television, and the workplace couched in the fictional journey of Elizabeth Zott, a scientist-turned-tv-star. The book had me alternately laughing and outraged. While fictional, I’ve read plenty of court cases that support some of the worst misogyny she faces.

The structure of the book was fascinating and impressive, if a little confusing. Early on, the book enters a long, extended flashback. Within that flashback, there are multiple shorter flashbacks. The author uses these to introduce characters; they can be very lengthy. It gives the characters depth, but without the ability to flip back to earlier pages, I’d sometimes get a little lost in the timeline. The complexity of the structure did make the payoff at the end even more impressive.

If you’re afraid the book paints all men as woman-hating sexual predators, no fear! Plenty try to buck the misogyny of their peers, though often seem uncertain how. Some of the most thoughtful characters are the men who are just trying to treat Elizabeth Zott like a fellow human being.

Frustratingly, the book ends with an implication that kind, clear-thinking people can’t believe in God. A priest plays a prominent role in the book. In a book in which the major characters are indifferent to religion or professed atheists, the priest was one of the most relatable. His admission of a loss of faith at the end disappointed me.

Thinking people believe in God. Faith, ritual, and dogma are not simply elements of religion that will disappear if we rid ourselves of religion and theology. They are human experiences that exist even in science. Of course, we all believe our own views are the most enlightened. I know my own views can frustrate readers.

It was a fun, interesting read that I heartily recommend. I’m grateful for the far less sexist environment my wife works in, the general acceptance of me staying home with the kids, and I hope we keep and improve this world for my children’s sakes.

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