Lessons in Chemistry | Bonnie Garmus #USfiction

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 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.

Lessons in Chemistry was the book chosen for our April book group, and although I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bonnie Garmus’ capable hands, I’m not sure what else there is to say? It’s the kind of book you whiz through, caring about the characters, wanting to know what will happen next, feeling entertained and shocked and amused along the way.

It’s only afterwards you being to wonder what actually happened?

Did I really sit up after midnight one night, frantically reading this book? Did I really turn the light on again way after midnight to keep reading because I couldn’t get this book out of my head enough to sleep? Yes, I did.

But why?

Some books get a lot of hype from the moment they hit the shelves. This time last year, Lessons in Chemistry was one of those books. The reps raved about, the pre-publicity raved about it. News was leaked that a TV deal had been signed. One of my colleagues read the advance copy – and loved it. More and more customers read it, and the rave reviews kept rolling in. Just when I thought sales were slowing down, they would suddenly go crazy again. The recent change from trade paperback to the smaller B-format has only increased interest again.

With all this love going on I had firmly decided not to read it – too much hype and it was selling itself. It didn’t need me to read it. I had put this book into the same category as Where the Crawdads Sing – a not-for-me book! But then it was selected for our April book club read.

My main concern was that it would be too light and frothy for my taste. I knew I had to wait for the right mood to give it a try, otherwise it might end up like Crawdads – flung across the room in disgust. It took a weekend stuck at home with a nasty sinus infection – and suddenly Lessons in Chemistry was the right book at the right time.

It may have been the drugs I was taking for my infection, but I found myself almost obsessing about this book. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, wondering what was going to happen next. I found myself enjoying Elizabeth’s company a lot – her quirky ways, her determination, her ambition and her fortitude. She is someone who believes that we can make the world a better place.

Was this revenge comedy? Feminist fantasy? Neurodivergent intrigue?

It didn’t matter; I was having too much fun. As did my book group. We all began by talking about how light and easy and fun the book was and wondered what we might talk about, but then found ourselves discussing all the issues we ourselves had faced over the years, at school, in our careers, with family and friends, and in public re inequality. Turns out we had a LOT to say! One of us was even a former rower, who was able to confirm that almost all the rowing scenes were spot on.

Some darker themes and scenes were woven into the story including depression, rape, domestic violence, a terrible car accident, suicide, and paedophilia. Garmus gave them the gravity they deserved, but didn’t dwell. Her focus was firmly on one woman’s experience of patriarchal society, misogyny and toxic masculinity (yes, there were a few good men too, but they were also caught up in – and at times disadvantaged by – the web of systemic sexism and inequality that defined much of 1950’s society and culture).

Elizabeth is a great character – almost a caricature of a scientist, as are many of the other characters. This made it very easy to work out who were the good people and the bad people. The humour was more exaggeration than satire. There were some shocks, but no surprises. At times, Elizabeth reminded me of Garp’s mother, Nurse Jenny in The World According to Garp, running around in her white labcoat, wearing her pencil behind her ear, turning her kitchen into a lab. In fact, if I had to make a comparison with another writer, it would be to early John Irving.

Read Lessons in Chemsitry for the pure escapism of it all. Some suspension of your critical side may be required, but if you are in the mood for a page-turning, quirky read this might surprise you too.

Favourite Quotes:

It is not your imagination…most people are awful.

Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.

Favourite or Forget:

If not for my book group, I would have forgotten more of the details than I have in fact remembered to write this long overdue post. However I will remember that Lessons in Chemistry was one of those books that resulted in a two day reading binge just when I needed it most. Satisfying, but unchallenging.

I have now passed my copy on to B25’s GF.

Title: Lessons in Chemistry
Author: Bonnie Garmus
ISBN: 9781804990926
Imprint: Penguin
Published: 7 March 2023 (originally published 31 March 2022)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 390
Dates Read: 19 March 2023 - 20 March 2023
Origin: TBR
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

23 thoughts on “Lessons in Chemistry | Bonnie Garmus #USfiction

  1. I figured, because of the hype, that this was not a book for me, but I think your review has convinced me otherwise. Sometimes you just need a rip-roaring good read, even if it’s just a palate cleanser, which this one sounds like it might be.


    1. Palate cleanser – that’s it exactly! We all need something to binge every now and again & this fits the bill perfectly. Even though I was initially resistant, I’m glad I read it.


  2. That’s interesting. Here I am in the U. S., fairly attuned to what’s going on, and I’ve never heard of this book. Who’s been raving about it? Maybe I’m not as attuned as I think.


    1. It has been no. 1 on the NY Times bestseller list, the Sunday Times bestseller and in Australia too. But if you’re like me you may not really pay attention to these lists. For me it’s how much reordering I have to do at work. This one has been crazy for over a year now.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Agreed, but commercial fiction has it’s place and lots of people enjoy reading it. And this one is actually pretty good. The book tok books drive me crazy, but we now have 20-something young women coming into the shop on a regular basis looking for Colleen Hoover books – a demographic that had been lost to books for a while. I’m just thrilled to see them reading again.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh, I like a lot of commercial fiction, just usually not the stuff that gets on the NY Best Seller list. I didn’t realize the 20 somethings hadn’t been reading.


  3. I really enjoyed it, though read it firmly as a fairy tale, and I saw a few people recoiling from the two scenes of violence on the blogs. Funnily enough, it’s having a real phase among my local friendship circle at the moment – no one can bring it to a BookCrossing meetup because we’ve all read it!


    1. The couple of scenes of violence were a shock, but compared to what we see on the news every night or in most movies these days, I must confess I barely noticed them. I had to go back and find them after reading the comments to double check.
      I thought that Garmus dealt with them quickly and appropriately. Given how little agency or power women often have in these situations, I applauded Elizabeth’s response. I saw it as taking the whole thing about women carrying their keys in their hands when walking at night or in an unfamilar area to the next level.
      My book group agreed that thankfully the level of overt sexism highlighted in this book had decreased, but it had gone underground instead, so to speak. Although a couple of high profile cases in Australia recently makes me wonder. It’s hard enough challenging overt sexist behaviour, the covert behaviour is far more insidious.


  4. I’ve avoided this book because of the hype, and while your review does make it sound far more enticing than any of the others I’ve read, I’m still not very willing to read it. Maybe because my mother was in her 30s in the 1960s and she had a very difficult life. However, I will put this on my “maybe” list and still not put Crawdads on ANY list at all!


  5. I had heard of this, but was avoiding it because of all the hype and wasn’t really sure what it was but obviously it’s going to have to go to the top of my list now, thank you!


    1. Whenever you’re in the mood for a quick, easy read that has that something a little bit extra to keep you turning the pages, then Lessons in Chemistry could be the one indeed! I’ve only had a couple of customers tell me they didn’t like it/couldn’t get into it over the past year or so.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It was definitely not frothy chick lit, which is what I was expecting, without any basis, as I had avoided the reviews. Like you, I read this because of my book group and as most of the women are engaged in high-powered careers or have retired from them, the conversation was lively as people discussed situations they had been in or survived despite sexism in the workplace. We all agreed we had never felt physically at risk but several had felt uncomfortable on business trips where they were pressured to drink more than they wanted to.


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