Lessons in chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

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Raped by her supervisor at UCLA, Elizabeth is forced to abandon her PhD studies leaving the perpetrator in place, unchecked. She takes a lesser job at Hastings Research Institute in California, where she meets the same hostility to women that she met with at UCLA.  But she does meet one man who sees past the stereotype, Calvin Evans, and together they discuss the one thing she is passionate about, chemistry. But Elizabeth becomes a single mother, and forced to resign again because of her status, abruptly reminding the readers this is historical fiction, set in the post World War Two USA, when women did not become chemists, or single mothers, or report assaults to the police or challenge the status quo. Her research has been denied her and without her expected PhD, her work at Hastings is also stolen when the supervisor publishes her work as his own.

Without work she turns her kitchen into a laboratory to further her research and finds the other chemists where she worked, come to her for help and advice. But this work is not enough to sustain Elizabeth and her daughter and when she is offered a job at the local TV station, presenting a cooking show, she takes it. Here she meets the same paternalism she met at Hastings, and she fights.

Her cooking show, Supper at Six, rattles the norms. She talks in chemical terms, encourages women to speak out, decries men who beat their wives, offers information on the best mushrooms to use as a means of revenge, much to the chagrin of both her immediate boss and the station manager, whose approach to discussion with Elizabeth is sexual violence. She is fired but the overwhelming popularity of the show sees its continuance.

This superb novel takes the reader on a journey of women’s lives through the 1960’s.

I was alternatively laughing, almost crying but certainly cringing and feeling angry, because the story lays out the attitudes in post war USA for many women when education and job opportunities were denied them. Men and women went along with the stereotype of women staying home with children, being a good wife and mother, which was all they wanted. Elizabeth not only shows women good nutritious meals but undermines the myth of women’s lot only being in the home.

I found this a breathtaking read, and will be interested to see how well the Netflix series does justice to the story. And you can hear Bonnie speak to 2000 people at the Sydney Writer’s Week at https://iview.abc.net.au/video/RN2311H014S00.

Themes: Feminism, Sexual violence, USA-1960’s, Chemistry.

Fran Knight

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