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30 September 2023

The absurdity of Lessons in Chemistry

The overnight success of Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel is almost as improbable as its contrived plot.

By Pippa Bailey

Bonnie Garmus, a US-born, London-based copywriter, knew she wanted to be a novelist when she was five years old. But it wasn’t until she was in her mid-sixties that her debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, was won for six figures at a 16-way auction in the UK. For an earlier attempt at writing a bestseller, she had received 98 rejections.

 Lessons in Chemistry was published in April 2022, its cover festooned with laudatory quotes from Nigella Lawson and Elizabeth Day: since then it has topped bestseller lists and been translated into more than 40 languages. Now, it has been adapted for the screen by Apple TV, premiering on 13 October, with a script by the Erin Brockovich writer Susannah Grant, and starring Brie Larson as its central character.

Garmus’s story is the stuff of improbable dreams. But even that isn’t as improbable as her fiction.

Elizabeth Zott is not like other women, and from the opening pages of Lessons in Chemistry Bonnie Garmus wants you to know it. Elizabeth is a brilliant chemist who studies abiogenesis, the beginning of life on Earth. She is beautiful, too, though she doesn’t much care. She’s a social misfit, who casually says things like: “We both know food is the catalyst that unlocks our brains, binds our families, and determines our futures.” Awful, simple men – because all men are awful and simple, aren’t they? – try to quash her, but Elizabeth hits them in the balls with her handbag. She pairs her “flawless skin” (did I mention she never sweats?) with the “unmistakeable demeanour of someone who was not average and never would be”.

It’s 1952 and Elizabeth is a researcher at the Hastings Institute in Commons, California, where she is belittled by her male superiors and their jealous secretaries alike. Her studies continue only thanks to the donations of a mystery benefactor. She meets the star scientist Calvin Evans, an orphan and early adopter of jogging, who is similarly gifted: “By age 19, he had already contributed critical research that helped famed British chemist Frederick Sanger clinch the Nobel Prize; at 22, he discovered a faster way to synthesise simple proteins.” By 24, he was on the cover of Chemistry Today.

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Elizabeth, having no interest in marriage or children, accepts his suggestion that they get a dog. A page later, a stray dog follows Elizabeth to her car… Then Calvin is killed in a car accident, and she discovers (vomit, vomit) that she’s pregnant. “You know very well Evans left you something!” shrieks one of the secretaries. At this point the reader may need a sick bag too.

Elizabeth is fired by her simple, awful boss for being pregnant. Happily, she runs into a dad from her child’s school who is a TV producer and thinks she’d be great on a cooking show. She doesn’t want to be a TV chef (she’s a scientist, goddamnit!) but needs the money. And so, an atheist single mother who calls whisking an egg “disrupting the egg’s internal bonds in order to elongate the amino acid chain” is welcomed into the living rooms and hearts of 1960s America. The show is called Supper at Six, though it airs at 4.30pm. Even the vice-president, Lyndon B Johnson, tunes in.

[See also: Breeders review: A reminder that we need more family dramas]

Lessons in Chemistry trades in absurd, contrived accidents. By the time a reporter who covers Calvin’s funeral has also popped up at an episode in which his gravestone is shot at and an attempted bombing at the TV studio, even our narrator deems it “unbelievable”.

And yet the novel is also predictable. Garmus has said she admires “Agatha Christie’s ability to surprise”. Christie’s detective stories have neat, formulaic plots: has tea been mentioned noticeably often? It’s probably poisoned. Garmus takes a similar approach to foreshadowing: “Close one,” Calvin exhales as he slips on some moss, minutes before his death. The identity of Calvin’s mother is heavily hinted at on page 54, when we’re told Calvin has been receiving “crank letters” from “people purporting to be long-lost relatives”, including a “sad” woman claiming to be his biological mother. When the novel’s final “twist” is neatly wrapped up, it’s at such speed (just 15 pages of a near-400-page book) it’s as if Garmus did nothing more than remove the bullet points from a chapter outline.

Garmus has few tricks, employed ad nauseam. The dog gets its quirky name, Six-Thirty, because of a mishearing: Calvin, seeing the stray, asks “Who’s your friend?” “It’s six thirty,” Elizabeth replies, looking at her watch. On the labour ward, a nurse asks for Elizabeth’s new baby’s name; believing she’s being asked how she’s feeling, she says: “Mad” – and so her daughter is named. Elizabeth and Calvin’s meet-cute happens at the theatre, where, nauseated by his date’s perfume, he runs into Elizabeth in the lobby and throws up on her dress. Calvin’s mother, we learn in the final pages, met his father when he ran her over with his bike. Perhaps whimsy runs in the family.

Elizabeth and Calvin are a couple unlike any other: “more than friends, more than confidants, more than allies, and more than lovers. If relationships are a puzzle, then theirs was solved from the get-go – as if someone shook out the box and watched from above as each separate piece landed exactly right, slipping one into the other, fully interlocked, into a picture that made perfect sense.”

Their daughter, of course, is preternaturally intelligent: Mad “had been reading since age three and, now, at age five, was already through most of Dickens”. Aged four, she picks up Norman Mailer, Zane Grey, Vladimir Nabokov. When the neighbour-cum-nanny Harriet suggests they make mud pies, Mad writes 3.1415 in the dirt. If you’re starting to think Garmus writes only one character, wait until you meet the dog.

Six-Thirty has an unusual level of intuition. Elizabeth teaches him English, and soon he knows 497 words. He has a favourite actress (Kim Novak). He prompts Elizabeth to lengthen “Mad” to the more socially acceptable “Madeline” by leaving a copy of Proust by her bed. We know all this because the dog speaks. Through these slips into magical realism we learn that Six-Thirty can also commune with the dead and the unborn: “Creature, he’d communicated last week, Six-Thirty here. He waited for a response. Sometimes the creature extended a small fist, which he found thrilling; other times he heard singing. But yesterday he’d broken the news – There’s something you should know about your father – and it began to cry.” Really.

Though billed as an uproarious comedy, Lessons in Chemistry begins as one long trauma dump. Elizabeth is prevented from doing a PhD when she is raped by a professor and the faculty defends him. He “hoisted her up like a crane lifting a sloppy load of lumber”, Garmus writes craftlessly, “plunking her back down on the stool like a rag doll”. Elizabeth’s father, a preacher who faked signs from God by making pistachios combust, is in prison after one of his fires killed three people. Her brother, John, hanged himself after being told by his father he was an “aberration” for being gay. All in the first 40 pages. Then Calvin is killed in a series of unfortunate events – exhaust backfire, startled dog, slippery oil, police car – and not even death can part Garmus from an overdone simile. Calvin “slip[s] forward like a clumsy ice skater, the pavement coming up fast like an old friend who couldn’t wait to say hello”. Later, “an army of tears” lies “just behind her eyes, but they refused to decamp”.

If Calvin’s backstory – dead relatives, Catholic boys’ home, shadowy benefactor – feels Dickensian, Elizabeth is altogether too modern: a 21st-century feminist copy-pasted to the 1950s. Her suffering has made her angry, and this is the primary emotional register through which she interacts with the world. She harangues – Garmus’s word – about “a patriarchal society founded on the idea that women were less. Less capable. Less intelligent. Less inventive.” She hates The Mikado, the operetta at which she meets Calvin, because “the lyrics were racist, the actors were white, and it was blatantly obvious that the female lead was going to be blamed for everyone else’s misdeeds”. She laments that women take their husband’s surnames after marriage: “It’s a life sentence.” Considering her main schtick on Supper at Six is refusing to follow the script, she delivers it all as if read from an autocue.

[See also: JM Coetzee’s cold realism]

Other women are asleep to all this; only Elizabeth can wake them. At one point she quite literally asks: “What is wrong with women?” She inspires her viewers to create change in their own lives. One woman in the studio audience shares that she wanted to be an open-heart surgeon, and when Elizabeth tells her she can, trains as one. Harriet is miserable living with her revolting husband until: “Elizabeth Zott came into her life and she finally realised that maybe what she needed wasn’t new clothes or a different hairdo. Maybe what she needed was a career.” Without their feminist saviour, they’d all still be languishing in a pit of oppression and casseroles. Women, Lessons in Chemistry seems to say, what are you waiting for? If you don’t like your life, change it! If only sexism was so simply overcome.

How much more interesting Elizabeth Zott would be if she was a scientist wrestling with the vestiges of a faith, or aware that her career is enabled by another woman caring for her child. But there is no room for ambiguity here. In Garmus’s world, the good guys are really good, and eventually triumph over adversity, and the bad guys are really bad, and eventually get their comeuppance. Elizabeth’s audience on Supper at Six are receptive, reasonable people, open to and capable of change. Lessons in Chemistry is ultimately a work of fantasy. Elizabeth Zott, our great realist, would hate it.

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power