Every now and again, a first novel appears in a flurry of hype and big-name TV deals, and before the end of the first chapter you do a little air-punch because for once it’s all completely justified. Lessons in Chemistry, by former copywriter Bonnie Garmus, is that rare beast; a polished, funny, thought-provoking story, wearing its research lightly but confidently, and with sentences so stylishly turned it’s hard to believe it’s a debut.
Since the success of The Queen’s Gambit and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, there’s been a renewed interest in stories of pioneering women fighting to prove themselves in traditionally male arenas in the years – late 50s and early 60s – before second-wave feminism took off. Elizabeth Zott, the heroine of Lessons in Chemistry, follows firmly in their footsteps; the book also nods to the rediscovery of TV chef Julia Child as a trailblazer, and even echoes Breaking Bad’s Walter White in Elizabeth’s mantra: “Chemistry is change.”
As the novel opens in 1961, Elizabeth is a 30-year-old single mother and the reluctant, “permanently depressed” star of a cooking show for housewives called Supper at Six. By training she is a research chemist, though her academic career has foundered despite her obvious talent, and as the narrative jumps back 10 years we understand why. Female scientists are viewed with suspicion by their male colleagues; from her earliest undergraduate days, Elizabeth has been subject to attacks on her reputation and her person, from the major – sexual assault and theft of her work – to the casual everyday misogyny meted out by people, including other women, who see her independence and single-mindedness as a threat. Even when she finds her soulmate, Nobel-nominated chemist Calvin Evans, their happiness is a further spur to jealous rivals and doomed not to last.
Though she takes the TV gig to pay the bills after being fired from her research institute, Elizabeth initiates a quiet revolution, using her platform to speak directly to millions of housewives about their own capacity for change. Garmus’s great skill here is to create a richly comic novel around a character who is entirely deadpan, and to whom some pretty dreadful things happen: “She’d been defined not by what she did, but by what others had done.” The comedy exists in the gap between Elizabeth’s calm but dogged refusal to be anything less than herself, and the determination of those around her to squeeze her into an acceptable mould.
There are, inevitably, a few first-novel flaws: the narrative perspective hops around too often, dallying with minor characters when its strength is in Elizabeth’s inner life. There’s a semi-magic-realist strand from the viewpoint of Elizabeth’s unnaturally perceptive dog, which some readers may find charming and quirky and others somewhat grating. But Garmus understands the importance of a satisfying resolution; if her revenge comedy relies a little too heavily on coincidence, that’s all part of the larger-than-life, Technicolor world she has created. It’s easy to see how fluently the story will translate to the screen, but the real pleasure of the novel is in the dry wit of Garmus’s writing.