Bonnie Garmus: Lessons in Chemistry

Elizabeth Zott is a scientist – brilliant, singular, driven. She is not interested in stories, but facts. She works within an all-male team at the Hastings Research Institute in southern California, and her passion is abiogenesis – the origin of life from non-living matter. She is an atheist and a lone parent.

The problem is, it’s 1961. Zott’s fellow scientists do not see her as an equal, never mind a brilliant scientist, but rather someone who should be making the coffee. All but one man, Calvin Evans, a Nobel Prize nominated scientist who falls in love with her mind. But nothing is ever straightforward.

Circumstances remove Zott from the science lab to being the reluctant presenter of a daytime television cookery show, Super At Six. There, she flatly refuses to perform mid-century femininity, but instead uses chemistry to teach cooking to housewives (“combine one teaspoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) and without meaning to, gathers a huge following. Zott is not just teaching women cookery, but encouraging them to challenge the status quo and see themselves as people, rather than wives and mothers.

This is the plot of Lessons in Chemistrya debut novel by tech copywriter Bonnie Garmus, 64. It’s auction something of a publishing phenomenon – after a 16-way, the book has been sold in 35 countries and is already being made into an 8-part series for Apple TV starring Brie Larson.

Publishing is famous for its hyperbole, but in this instance, every word of praise and acclaim for Lessons in Chemistry is justified. It’s an absolute cracker. A funny, original, elegant page-turner, full of characters that zing off the page, centring around a humane, clear-headed, fearless heroine, her brilliant child, and the best dog character to ever appear in fiction.

In person, Garmus is as funny, charming and clever as her writing. Speaking on Zoom, she tells me how the book came about, and the genesis of Elizabeth Zott.

“I used to write a lot about technology and one day I was in a meeting that was all men,” she says. “During that meeting I presented my concepts, and people were like, mmm-hmmm, and a few minutes later a man repeated exactly what I’d just said and everyone went, oh wow, that is great! That is brilliant!” She pauses raising an eyebrow.

“I was really upset and couldn’t let it go, so when I went back to my desk, instead of working I wrote the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry.”

Garmus had previously written an unrelated 700-page novel, and received “98 rejections” because she’d been “too naïve to realise” that nobody would touch a War And Peace length book from an unknown writer. Write something shorter, she was told amid the rejection slips.

And then that infuriating moment of casual misogyny at work spurred her to bring Elizabeth Zott to life. The novel, which took five years to write, and rewrite multiple times, was originally titled Introduction to Chemistry but people thought it was a science textbook, so she changed it.

“I wrote Elizabeth Zott because I was feeling so frustrated at the time,” she says. “I felt like I needed somebody to look up to, somebody with integrity, somebody who refused, on logical rational scientific grounds, to accept the treatment she was being given.

“Zott talks straightforwardly, she shoots from the hip, she doesn’t hesitate, she never apologises – I really wanted to write someone like that, and had no idea how bold she would be when I started. But being in her head was amazing for me. When I started, I wasn’t aware of all the things she would cover – she covers a lot of ground, using science as a launching platform to talk about so many irrationalities that exist in our society, and continue to exist. That’s how it all evolved.”

Bonnie Garmus, author: literary success in response to workplace misogyny. Pic: Moya Nolan

The stifling conformity, conservatism and inequality of the era the book is set in provides a stark backdrop to the free-thinking mind of Zott and how she parents her daughter Madeleine. Garmus says she chose the very early ’60s for two reasons.

“I needed to reassure myself that we’ve actually made progress,” she explains. “And of course we have, but not enough.

“The other reason is that this was when my mom was a housewife, and I suddenly saw her life through a completely different lens. She’d stayed at home with four kids, but she’d been a nurse, and I think she missed a career that made her feel capable and important, but she gave it up for us. She was fantastic. But her work was always dismissed as being ‘just an average housewife’. I hadn’t realised the pressure and limitations of my mom and her friends had lived under during that time.” Her mother had wanted to be a doctor; one vignette in the book poignantly echoes this.

One of Zott’s more radical moves in the book was to publicly declare her atheism, anathema in a god-fearing, pre-feminist era.

“There are themes throughout the book and one of them is deception,” says Garmus. “With religions, all of the stories vary, yet everybody says they have the correct story. But Elizabeth Zott doesn’t believe in any of it because she’s a scientist, and because she’s working from actual facts rather than from stories that are created to promote some people and enslave others.”

In a book which is all about the liberating consequences of rationality, there is no space for such stories. Instead we get to read about Zott’s visionary parenting of her daughter. Madeline is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, voraciously inquisitive, reading Dickens in kindergarten. (In her own childhood Garmus was such a fan of Dahl’s work that she wrote to him from California; several months later a letter addressed to her appeared from England – he had replied.)

“Madeline is a child raised without limits, because I wanted to see what that looked like,” says Garmus. “She is allowed to explore fully and question things, to say things to her teacher that maybe other kids wouldn’t – that was fun to write.” As was the dog, a rescue named Six Thirty (Garmus, who currently lives in London with her husband, has a dog called 99).

“I didn’t know the dog was going to have a point of view when I started writing him,” she says. “Until suddenly he thinks something to himself, and kicks off the theme of lying that’s underneath the surface of the entire book. If animals were observing us, they may find us very confusing, because we say one thing and do another – I wanted Six Thirty to be that anthropological voice, observing and questioning.”

Aside from the incredible lead, her kooky daughter and their adorable dog, there are some truly hideous characters too – as well as the common misogynists, there is a full-blown Harvey Weinstein character, and several female characters whose lack of sisterhood and solidarity are eye-watering examples of the divide and conquer of patriarchy.

“Sometimes women don’t realise that they’re sabotaging themselves by not supporting other women,” says Garmus. “Female friendship is one of the themes – because at the start of the book, Elizabeth doesn’t really have any.” Soon Garmus will be on a major book tour, before visiting the set where the series is being made. It must be quite surreal, I suggest, going from that moment of fury in a business meeting a few years ago to being propelled into the publishing stratosphere by the character borne of that fury.

Garmus nods.

“I keep feeling like I’m in this ongoing dream and any moment now I’m going to wake up,” she says. “But then you get a call from Hollywood and they’re saying things like, ‘oh we’re casting the dog this week’.” She is beaming, as well she might.

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