Monday, April 17, 2023

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus


Source of book: I own this     


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. We ended up getting behind on the nominating process, and thus picked this one kind of as a “Does anyone have a better idea? No?” basis. 

Some of our club really loved the book, but I am going to say I have mixed feelings. As usual, the adage of “just because you don’t enjoy the genre doesn’t mean it is bad” applies here. 


The book is fiction, set in the 1950s and 60s, about a female chemist who struggles to find her place because of the rampant sexism of the time. She falls in love with a brilliant male chemist, they defy society by shacking up, and seem set for a grand partnership. Alas, he is killed in an accident, she finds out she is pregnant, and her life goes through a series of problems as a result. She loses her job, she struggles to support herself, her daughter turns out to be both as smart and as weird as her parents, and she eventually finds herself making a living as a TV cooking show host. 


The tone throughout is pretty snarky, and I felt pretty preachy as well. It did, however, fly by pretty fast, and went down easy. 


So, things I didn’t like. For the most part, these boil down to “anachronisms.” The language the characters (and the author) use for things is very 21st Century Feminist. Now, don’t get me wrong, the ideas and feelings were, I’m sure, in existence in 1950, but the ways we talk about them have changed. You wouldn’t, for example, say “hostile work environment” back then, even if the concept was understood. 


To be clear here, I have read texts from feminist authors starting back at the first wave with A Vindication of the Rights of Women. For the era in question, I read all of The Second Sex, and have at least some familiarity with other feminist texts that would apply. 


In light of this, the way the issues are discussed in this book feel too modern to be realistic. My wife also pointed out cultural anachronisms, from the faux decorations on the TV set on down. 


Now, I get it. This is clearly not a realistic work. It is, perhaps, more like an opera, or a play where the author used a fictional time and place for what is meant to be a more modern story. (See: Shakespeare) But it felt harder for me to suspend my disbelief long enough to just go with it. Which is what I ended up doing. 


Things that I liked? Well, the author is a rower, so the scenes involving rowing were well done. (It helped to have read The Boys in the Boat.) The part about the dog (Six-thirty by name) was amusing, and a break from the preachiness. Some of the jokes were pretty funny. The snarky tone grew on me by the end. 


I will also give credit for solid plotting. No detail is wasted, and seemingly minor details turn out to be important for the twist at the end. 


There were a few scenes that I found interesting for personal reasons. The daughter, Mad (a mistake on the birth certificate - she should have been Madeleine, but ended up preferring her legal name) learns to read at a young age, something not appreciated by her kindergarten teacher. I sympathize. I too learned to read at age four, and was fairly advanced by the time I went to school. My kindergarten teacher was a bit of a clueless, old school old lady, and had zero idea that I was reading the teacher instructions in our books. (She told my parents that I was learning my letters well, though.) 


Another one was the ludicrous (and yet also inaccurate) kitsch decorations for the TV set. In the one case, the needlepoint of “Bless This House” was familiar to me, but not from my grandparents’ generation (the one who raised their kids in the 50s and 60s.) That was what was in my house when I was a kid. A very 70s and early 80s thing. 


There is a line where the kindly (if a bit ditzy) neighbor, Harriett, wonders about what can be passed down from parents? After all, she “had produced four children, each one completely different from the others and wholly different from herself.” I feel this way about my five. They are all completely different from each other, and different from their parents (although, I suspect there are probably similarities too that are harder to see close up.) 


Harriett has her own problems - a spouse who is borderline abusive, and at best inattentive and entitled. She finally gets the courage up to divorce him, but as she considers doing so, the author details the cultural pressure to stay with him. For example, the endless articles in women’s magazines promising tools and techniques for changing a man - none of which work, of course. Nothing has changed about women’s magazines, as far as I can tell. 


But the one that hit home more than anything (since I never read women’s magazines, but did spend 40 years in the Evangelical subculture) is this one: 


For the last thirty years, she’d confessed to her priest that her husband drank and cursed and never himself attended Mass, that he treated her as his own personal slave, that he called her names. And for the last thirty years, the priest had nodded, then explained that while divorce was out of the question, she still had lots of options. For example, she could pray to find ways to become a better wife, she could take a good look at herself and try to understand how she upset him, she could take more care with her appearance.


Again, nothing has changed. This is still the advice given to women. Which is different from the advice given to men, which often includes advice as to how to manipulate and control better.


Since the book is a breezy beach read, expect some happy tying up of the various ends, although with some twists from the usual formula. 


I’m not going to say this was a great book, but it wasn’t terrible, and had its moments. For, as I said, a breezy beach read, or a change of pace from heavier fare, feel free to give it a try. It goes fast, and can be finished in a short period of time if all you have is a weekend. 




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