Experimental research chemistry and the day-to-day chores of a mid-century American housewife – rather different fields, right? Not so, says Elizabeth Zott, the unflinching heroine of Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry.
After her life as a high-level scientist goes awry for reasons both mundane (the sexism of 1950s America) and less mundane (something to do with a skittish ex-sniffer dog and city leash law), Elizabeth finds herself host of the cooking show Supper at Six. She takes the precision of the laboratory and applies it to the task of feeding a family: she refers to salt as sodium chloride, vinegar as acetic acid and coffee as C8H10N4O2, thereby educating America’s housewives in the finer points of chemistry as well as cookery. Along the way, she radicalises them on matters as diverse as subsidised childcare, atheism and feminism.
But, as witty, fast-paced and unabashedly amusing as Lessons in Chemistry is (it also features a love story and the internal monologue of a scarily clever dog), Garmus does not allow her readers unadulterated joy. Elizabeth negotiates a world in which sexual abuse is as prevalent as low-level