A Woman Shares Her Own ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

Although it hardly matters that mine will be the 95,000th review of the Bonnie Garmus novel Lessons in Chemistry, I’m sharing with you my thoughts and impressions of this runaway bestseller, anyway.

I remember reading a novel similar to this one in terms of a feminist treatise, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. It changed my life when I was in my mid-twenties. Like Lessons in Chemistry, it explored the mundane life of the housewife and the injustice of not taking a woman’s intelligence and talents seriously. The Women’s Room served as a validation of all I had been thinking and feeling as a woman thrust into a male-dominated profession. I was young then and naïve and believed the world would change.

As I got older and saw the way things were going, I found it difficult to read books describing in great detail how women were mistreated and abused by a misogynistic and patriarchal system that stymied their hopes and dreams. I think of the job interviews where people asked if I planned to have children, and the time I lost a possible promotion because I couldn’t take a job in the city due to the long commute away from my sons. I found reading about these issues that I had lived with both infuriating and upsetting. So, when I began Lessons in Chemistry, I felt the urge to stop but went ahead because it was selected by my book club, and I was curious why EVERY book club in America seemed to be reading it. Why was there a FIVE MONTH wait for this book at my local library? And 95,000 reviews? What was going on?

It’s only as I sit here and write this review or whatever it is that I realize how far I have come. Maybe it’s listening to all those women share their stories in the Women’s Writing Circle over the years that I realize I’m not alone. Maybe that’s the “lesson” in Lessons in Chemistry. We’re in this together and all of us have lived knowing how hard, how strong, and how resilient women have to be to overcome the odds, the sexism. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or a chemist—to figure that out. Or even a great cook and TV show host, which brilliant and beautiful Elizabeth Zott, the book’s heroine, becomes in order to earn a paycheck after being run out of the male hierarchy of scientific research.

Like Elizabeth Zott encounters in the 1950s when the story takes place, I was one of those women who didn’t change her name for a man, and like Zott, a chemist who entered an all-male profession, I began my career in journalism. Now, it doesn’t seem unusual—women in journalism and keeping your name—but back in 1978, it was. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked why my name was different from my husband’s and my children’s. As a journalist who was somewhat known in the community by her name, I didn’t like the idea that I had to give up my name. And like Zott, I thought it unfair that children would automatically have the father’s name. My husband was adamant, so I settled with our older son, taking my last name as his middle name.

As for women and the Catholic Church, its horrors of orphanages and treatment of unwed mothers resonated even though I’m not Catholic. I’m not one to believe that science trumps religion as does Zott, who, like me, also tragically lost her soul mate (“chemistry” between soul mates is irrefutable) and becomes a single parent. And like Zott, I do question whether faith is simply an antidote to coping with life. Yet, for me, unlike Zott, who spars with the Presbyterian minister, Wakely (a little Dickensian play on words?), about science vs religion, accidents vs fate, I believe I settled those questions some time ago.

In my own novel, And the Memory Returns, Ava Stuart explores her faith with this memory of her late husband, Jay:

She remembered Jay clutching his rosary from Catholic school days as he lay dying. He hadn’t been an ardent believer when she knew him but there he was dying and Catholicism had left its indelible mark, eraser-throwing nun, or not. Maybe he felt he had sinned, and needed to make atonement. She knew she was a sinner because she had felt relief when his ordeal with cancer finally came to its inevitable conclusion. What a terrible person she was to want it to be over, to get on with her life, which she now saw as unrealistic and naïve. She wanted to believe that the reason Jesus came into the world was as a compassionate and loving pathway to God, and, of course, his suffering had been the worst. If God suffered, why should people expect anything different?

One final observation about Lessons in Chemistry. A dog is a central character. I love dogs so I found the dog’s thoughts and his actions a fun and touching part of the story. Surely, anyone who has ever loved a dog will recognize how we all feel they are smarter than people, how their quiet and unconditional companionship and love help us through the lonely times when we feel most fragile.

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I guess I just answered my own question as to why this book has entranced readers. It’s a fun and witty read, although lacks lyrical description and is a little too feel good (cooking is chemistry …”fearlessness in the kitchen translates to fearlessness in life” … housewifery is important work, male bosses are often stupid, and women who undermine other women sometimes surprise you in the end).

There are more narratives … the discerning male journalist whose reporting sheds light on the truth, the best friend who supports and loves you when you reach your lowest point, the sport of rowing which serves as a metaphor for life.

If you’ve lived through some or even one of the stories in this fictional tale—and I suspect, you have—you’ll probably feel that the author has captured a part of your life … the life of every woman.

Published by Susan G. Weidener

Join me as I share reflections, always with an eye toward the challenges and struggles we women encounter and embrace in both creative and personal ways. My memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, was selected as a 2011 editor’s pick by Story Circle Network. Its sequel Morning at Wellington Square has also achieved critical acclaim. A Portrait of Love and Honor, a novel based on a true story, is centered around a story of two people, Ava Stuart and Jay Scioli, who are destined to meet and Jay's commitment to honor following his years at West Point. My new novel And the Memory Returns continues the story of Ava Stuart who begins asking herself those questions so many women face as they age. What had it all meant? Where does she go from here? In 1991, I joined the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer and worked as a reporter covering news and writing feature stories until 2007. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs, I attended the University of Pennsylvania. In 2010, I started the Women's Writing Circle, a critique and support group for writers in suburban Philadelphia, which meets the second Saturday of the month at the Chester Springs Library. I live in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania with my Yellow Lab, Lily.

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