One of our recommended novels is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus


Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel–prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with—of all things—her mind. True chemistry results.

But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six.

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Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel–prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with—of all things—her mind. True chemistry results.

But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

Laugh-out-loud funny, shrewdly observant, and studded with a dazzling cast of supporting characters, Lessons in Chemistry is as original and vibrant as its protagonist.

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  • Doubleday
  • Hardcover
  • April 2022
  • 400 Pages
  • 9780385547345

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About Bonnie Garmus

Bonnie Garmus is the author of Lessons in ChemistryBONNIE GARMUS is a copywriter and creative director who has worked widely in the fields of technology, medicine, and education. She’s an open-water swimmer, a rower, and mother to two pretty amazing daughters. Born in California and most recently from Seattle, she currently lives in London with her husband and her dog, 99.


A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Oprah Daily, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek

“The most delightful novel I read this year…fresh and surprising…I laughed out loud!” —Philip Galanes, The New York Times

“A unique heroine…you’ll find yourself wishing she wasn’t fictional.”Seattle Times

“[Garmus] delivers an assured voice, an indelible heroine and relatable love stories…At the center of the novel is Elizabeth Zott, a gifted research chemist, absurdly self-assured and immune to social convention…Elizabeth is a feminist and modern thinker […] in a world nowhere ready for her mind, character or ambition…[Garmus] charm[s]. She’s created an indelible assemblage of stubborn, idiosyncratic characters. She’s given us a comic novel at precisely the moment we crave one.”Washington Post

“A kicky debut, this book tackles feminism, resilience, and rationalism in a fun and refreshing way.”BuzzFeed

“On par with Beth Harmon of The Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Zott swept me away with her intellect, honesty, and unapologetic selfhood. Lessons in Chemistry is a story for all the smart girls who refuse to dumb themselves down despite a culture that demands otherwise. Though a creation of the 50s & 60s, Zott is a feminist icon for our time.” —Rachel Yoder, author of Nightbitch

“[An] energetic debut…A more adorable plea for rationalism and gender equality would be hard to find.” Kirkus (starred review)

Lessons in Chemistry is a breath of fresh air—a witty, propulsive, and refreshingly hopeful novel populated with singular characters. This book is an utter delight—wry, warm, and compulsively readable.” —Claire Lombardo, author of The Most Fun We Ever Had


Discussion Questions

1. The late 1950s into the early 1960s was supposedly a halcyon time in American history. But was it? The war was over and men returned home to take back the jobs women had done in their absence. As a result, women were pushed into more subservient roles. What influences played a part in encouraging women to accept their place as only in the home?  And why, in today’s world, when women are in the workforce in record numbers, are they still doing most of the housework and child-raising?

2. Elizabeth Zott had no formal education, and yet she was able to self-educate, thanks to her library card. With the advent of technology, the library almost seems outdated, though many would argue that the library is more important than ever. Do you think libraries are important? If so, why?

3. Why does Elizabeth always wear a pencil in her hair? Is it a weapon or is it a symbol of strength?

4. Elizabeth refuses to accept limits placed on her by society and insists that others also ignore those limits. How do each of those characters ultimately rise to that challenge? And in what ways have you or others been limited by societal norms?

5. In the book, rowing is a metaphor on how Elizabeth sees a better society: that no one person in the boat is more important than the other. Have you ever participated in anything—work, sports, community efforts—where everyone must “row as one” in order to succeed? What are the hurdles people must overcome in order to reach the point where “it all feels easy”?

6. Six-Thirty is amazed by not only how often humans lie to each other, but how poorly they communicate overall. He struggles to understand the word “smart,” finding its very definition unintelligent. What does “smart” actually mean to you? Have you ever thought about what your pet might be trying to teach you?

7. The dictionary first defines faith as “the complete trust or confidence in someone or something” and “a belief in religious doctrine” second. Madeline draws this same distinction—that faith isn’t based on religion. Knowing this, what role does religion play in the book? What is a Humanist? What does the science of psychology tell us about the human’s desire to believe in something greater than themselves? And why do Elizabeth, Calvin, and Wakely all believe that personal responsibility—faith in one’s self—is more important?

8. The book includes male characters who are sympathetic to Elizabeth’s plight, and yet, with the exception of Calvin and Dr. Mason, have trouble standing up for women or other minorities in the workplace. Why do good-hearted people have trouble speaking up? And what are the consequences of not speaking up?

9. Elizabeth is sometimes depressed by the circumstances in her life. Not coincidentally, her show airs in the “Afternoon Depression Zone.” And yet she’s never a victim. How does she continually pick herself up? What fuels her resilience? And why, after she’s reached stardom, is she more miserable than ever?

10. Harriet Sloane is an inveterate magazine reader. How do magazines and media shape our culture? And what did Harriet mean when she first told Elizabeth to “recommit”? Is there some dream of yours that you wish you would recommit to?

11. Friendship and family are interconnected themes in the book. Can friendships sometimes provide family better than family itself? Walter isn’t Amanda’s biological father, but he loves her fully and is the most present person in her life. On the other hand, Avery Parker still loves the son she never knew. How do you define family?

12. Madeline fills her family tree with Sojourner Truth, Amelia Earhart, and Nefertiti to point out that all humans are related. But if humans are 99.9 percent the same, why do we treat each other so differently?



Q&A With Bonnie Garmus


Elizabeth Zott is a character we would all love to know or even become; where did such a personality spring from?

Fury! I started Lessons in Chemistry about seven years ago. I’d just come out of a meeting, irritated by some garden variety sexism, and as I sat down to work, I suddenly realized someone else was sitting there, too. Her name was Elizabeth Zott. Like me, she wasn’t in a very good mood. “You think you’ve had a bad day?” she said. “Well, get a load of this.”

Now I should add that Elizabeth Zott wasn’t new to me—she’d had a minor role in a different novel I’d started (and shelved) years before. But what was new to me was her certainty of who she was and what she had to say—about society, culture, racism, sexism, religion, and most of all, about change. How to do it and why.

Was there a particular idea or story that inspired you to write Lessons in Chemistry?

Not really, although I remember feeling like I really needed a new role model— someone who stood up for what she believed in; someone with integrity. That feeling was directly influenced by current politics and a deep-seated feeling that irrationality is on the rise. So I wanted to create a character who represented common sense—who refused to buy into society’s latest set of limitations.

Why did you pick the era of late 1950s and 1960s as the setting of your book?

I set the book during my mother’s era because I wanted to salute a generation of overlooked women—those so-called average housewives. They were the ones who stayed at home, and, despite education and ability, did all the cooking, cleaning, sewing, baking, and ironing, while raising a herd of kids.

Obviously, theirs was a tough job, but it was made even tougher by restrictions of the time. For instance, back then a woman couldn’t open a bank account without her husband’s permission; she had no legal right to his salary; her name was usually absent from the deed to the house; she couldn’t attend an Ivy League school; she couldn’t apply for a credit card; she couldn’t take birth control (it was illegal in some states and extremely difficult to get in most others); she couldn’t serve on a jury; she couldn’t practice law; and if she did work outside the home (a rarity) pregnancy was a fireable offense. Worse, all of her labor was trivialized.

Today, when I get frustrated because I think we still haven’t made enough progress, I think back to my mother’s era. It reminds me that significant change is possible. We’ve done it before; we can do it again.

Six-Thirty is destined to capture people’s hearts. Tell us about the dogs in your life.

I’ve had a few! My first dog was Charlie, a mutt, and he lived a very long time—nineteen years— thanks to (we believe) the bowl of ice cream he enjoyed every evening. As I child, I worshipped him and imagined he had great powers and heroic tendencies, although for a hero, he slept an awful lot.

Next came Astro and Barney, both mutts from the pound. They were our Best Dogs at our wedding and were great in the role—maybe a little too great—because a lot of our wedding photos feature only them—or them and the bottom half of our legs. We always referred to them as our “starter children.” I really think they helped prepare us for parenthood.

Friday came next—she was yet another pound rescue who’d been so badly abused, her previous owner had been sent to jail. But despite her bad beginning, Friday was basically Gandhi. Incredibly calm, wise, and smart, she had a huge vocabulary—not as big as Six-Thirty’s—but large, nonetheless. When we were transferred to Switzerland, she even picked up some German. Friday was the inspiration for Six-Thirty.

Now, we have 99, an eleven-year-old greyhound ex-racer. We live in a small flat in London—99’s the biggest thing in it. Living with her is probably the closest we’ll ever get to living with a fawn. Extremely sensitive, if she hears crying, she’ll try to do something about it—usually by gently pressing herself up against the sad person. Which is nice unless the crier in question is someone with a fear of dogs. She’s given a few people heart attacks.

Your book may inspire more young women to become scientists. Did you have similar aspirations when you were younger?

I never wanted to be a scientist—I always wanted to write novels! But I’ve always held scientists in high esteem. We all know brilliant minds have been routinely barred from science through systemic sexism, racism, and cultural barriers, and it’s still happening today. Science is one field in which keeping women, people of color, people of all genders out is not only unacceptable but perverse given that science itself doesn’t recognize intellectual limitations within these groups. So I do hope young women will continue to break through these barriers and flock to science—we need them! But I hope some of them will write novels, too.

You use the chemistry theme so creatively and make it so much fun. We could have sworn you had a scientific background! Where did the science in the book come from?

I needed to get the basics down, so I taught myself chemistry using an old textbook from the 1950s—had to be from the ’50s so I wouldn’t inadvertently mention breakthroughs that hadn’t happened yet. I also used a children’s chemistry book—The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments—from the same era. I even conducted a few experiments in our London flat, some of which had iffy results—which is okay in science, but less so in a dense neighborhood. But now I can say for a fact that the London fire department’s response time is excellent.

Elizabeth Zott refuses to conform to societal limits of her era – are there any particular women in history whom you admire?

I’ve got a long list! But I’ll start with Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffractions of DNA led directly to the discovery of the double helix— not that James Watson would ever admit to that. I’m also a big fan of Rosa Parks, the activist; Nellie Bly, the journalist; Jane Goodall, the animal behaviorist; Gloria Steinem, the feminist; and Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel and in a time that beat every male who’d come before her.

Do you enjoy cooking yourself ? Who cooks the most in your house?

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I don’t enjoy cooking! But I do admire those who do and that’s why my favorite meal is the one someone else makes. I think cooking well is hard—it’s both an art and a science. Luckily, my husband loves to cook and he’s good at it. Nevertheless, we split cooking duties right down the middle. Which means we get a great meal every other day.

Which books have most influenced you as a writer?

I read a lot as a child and those books and authors—Harriet the Spy, anything by Roald Dahl, Dickens, Nancy Drew, etc., had a huge impact. But as I got older, I read broadly— especially the Russians and the French (Anna Karenina, Madam Bovary) before getting hooked on great storytellers like John Irving, Donna Tartt, and J.K. Rowling.

Can you tell us more about the sport of rowing and why you chose to make Calvin a rower?

That’s easy: rowing was the one thing I didn’t have to research! Because I’m a rower. But I also wanted to make Calvin a rower because the sport requires an incredible amount of cooperation, plus the ability to withstand pain and embrace endurance. Based on his upbringing, Calvin knew how to withstand pain and endure. But cooperate? That’s where people stumble. And that’s why I wanted rowing to serve as a thematic device in the book. The fastest boats aren’t necessarily the boats with the biggest, strongest people, but rather the boats filled with people who cooperate and communicate well. People who pay attention to the tiny details rowing demands. Every race always starts the same way: with the word, “Attention.” And it’s those boats that pay attention—that row as one instead of as eight— that win.


Dear Reader:

Thanks for choosing Lessons in Chemistry for your book club.

Lessons in Chemistry tells the story of Elizabeth Zott, a chemist in the late 1950s-early 1960s who’s fired from her research job for the horrific crime of being unwed and pregnant. To make ends meet, she reluctantly accepts a job as a TV cooking show host. But what she doesn’t accept are the brainless cue cards she’s asked to read, nor the tight dresses she’s told to wear.

Instead, Elizabeth decides to teach her mostly female viewers chemistry. Because cooking is chemistry. And along the way, she empowers them to say no to society’s limitations; to stand up and be who they really are.

While reviewers have generously called Lessons in Chemistry “funny,” “delightful,” “witty,” and “wise,” it’s my hope you’ll also find Elizabeth’s rational approach to life a serious inspiration for our times.

Happy Reading!