Reader, if you’re not a STEM student, do not be deterred by the title Lessons in Chemistry. The novel by Bonnie Garmus, and the newly released miniseries adaptation, both greatly subverted its audience’s expectations. The story follows Elizabeth Zott (played by Brie Larson in the miniseries), a genius chemist working towards the completion of her PhD. Persistently thwarted by the sexism of her era (the late 50s), and her male colleagues, Zott is forced out of her role.
Outside of work, Zott stumbles into hosting her own cooking show, Supper at Six. Though the program epitomizes the sphere of domesticity that Zott strives against embodying, her scientific knowledge renders her a fantastic cook and show-host. She makes peace with her new profession by imbibing her segments with feminist doctrine and utilizing it as a vehicle for teaching housewives science.
As each show concludes, she demonstrates how to change unpromising ingredients with the calculated application of the right agents and forces. She then addresses her audience: “Children, set the table, your mother needs a moment to herself.”
Early in Garmus’s novel, Zott is given career advice by a disappointing male colleague. He reminds her: “Don’t work the system. Outsmart it.” Zott rebuts this assertion, however, admitting she “didn’t like the notion that systems had to be outsmarted. Why couldn’t they just be smart in the first place?”
The genius and relevance of Lessons in Chemistry lies in this very dialogue. Whilst series and novels highlighting the sexism of both academic and corporate America have been created before–On The Basis of Sex, for instance–Lessons in Chemistry diverges from the mainstream as it questions systems in addition to merely questioning society.
The scientific focus of the novel calls for a methodological understanding of sexist issues, proving particularly powerful in the current state of global affairs. In a new age of social justice, with a focus on the Foucaldian power struggle in numerous avenues, Zott’s rejection of systems in need of outsmarting serves as both an outcry against the problems that continue to plague society but also as a call to action.
Zott pushes us to consider the systems dictating the world around us, and to change or challenge them to the best of our ability, not because we believe in outsmarting them but because we believe in dismantling them.
Even the cover of Garmus’s novel draws attention to this relationship. Whilst the United States edition boasts a bright pink cover, adorned with a stylish woman’s face and accompanied with cat-eye sunglasses, the text is anything but a girly, romantic beach read. Lessons in Chemistry disguises itself as a follower of the growing science-romance fiction genre but is nothing of the sort.
Zott resents the need to outsmart the system, yet through her pseudo-domestic success, does so anyway. Garmus’s novel has the same effect. She reminds us that her novel is “not sweet,” despite its deceptive cover. Rather, the novel is sneakily transformative.
Following the novel's success, Garmus has been notified of how her book has brought change to her readers’ lives. From quitting their jobs and returning to school, to getting a divorce after rediscovering a lost part of themself within the novel, the author has revealed the sweeping effect of Lessons in Chemistry’s lessons on life.
Experimenting, and both breaking and forming new bonds, Zott and Garmus enact chemistry on its most rudimentary level, using its principles to challenge the world around them.
Illustration by Darcey Bateson