Straight, brave – and hilarious

Review: Vivien Horler

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday)

I fried a lamb chop the other day. And I remembered Elizabeth Zott’s advice on how to fry a steak.

“After you’ve rubbed both sides of your steak with a halved clove of fresh garlic, sprinkle both sides of the meat with sodium chloride and piperine. Then, when you notice the butter foaming, place the steak in the pan. Be sure and wait till the butter foams. Foam indicates that the butter’s water content has boiled away. This is critical. Because now the steak can cook in lipids rather than absorb H2O.”

My lamb chop was delicious.

It is the early 1960s, and Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. But as a result of a series of extraordinary – and mundane – attitudes and acts of male chauvinism, she finds herself presenting a TV cookery show Supper at Six.

Her brief is to have big hair, wear tight-fitting dresses and be the sexy wife and loving mother every man wants to come home to at the end of the day. Sadly for the studio bosses, they’ve misjudged Elizabeth Zott – and, it turns out, the target audiences – completely. She refuses to use a can of soup – made by the programme’s sponsors – because she tells the audience it is not good for them. She refuses to wear the dresses, insisting on wearing trousers instead.

Challenged, she tells her male producer: “Do you like them? You must. You wear them all the time.”

She hates the cottagey kitchen set and insists on something that looks more like a lab. And she absolutely refuses to smile. She’s told: “Elizabeth, this is a job. You have two duties: to smile and read cue cards. That’s it. You don’t get to have an opinion about the set or the cards.”

Elizabeth blithely ignores the instructions. She gives women advice on how to challenge their lesser role in society. She tells them: “Your ability to change everything – including yourself – starts here.”

She does not believe in compromise, only in what she believes to be right. She has no filters.

Isn’t it odd, she muses, that disasters are often referred to as acts of God. “Considering that most want to believe that God is about lambs and love and babies in mangers, and yet this same so-called benevolent being smites innocent people left and right, indicating an anger management problem – maybe even manic depression…”

Her views do not sit well with most men.

But there is a major exception. Because before she was a TV chef she worked for a company with a chemistry division. And while she tends to be scorned by many of her (largely male) colleagues, she and the division’s top chemist fall in love.

She refuses to marry him, however, because she fears people will believe he is somehow helping her career, or even assume that her work is actually his.

Which means when she becomes pregnant as a single woman – this is the early 1960s, remember – she loses her job.

But we’re rooting for Elizabeth all the way and hope that, just maybe, everything will come right for her in the end. We’re also rooting for Walter Pine, her TV boss, who admires her despite himself and despite being leaned on heavily by the ghastly studio head.

And we’re rooting for Harriet Sloane, Elizabeth’s elderly neighbour who steps in to help when Elizabeth finds being a single parent is a tough call, and who is a Catholic in a desperately unhappy marriage.

And then there’s Six-Thirty, the dog. Bonnie Garmus can write dogs.

Some appalling things happen in Lessons in Chemistry, and Elizabeth is in no way a jokey character. And yet the novel is a comic delight.



One thought on “Straight, brave – and hilarious

  1. David Bristow

    Sounds brilliant for when I have time for a comic delight.. How come I seem to be busier now than any other time I can recall (note to self: remember to say “no”)


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