“While all the other children gummed their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Madeline opened her lunch box to find a thick slice of leftover lasagna, a side helping of buttery zucchini, an exotic kiwi cut into quarters, five pearly round cherry tomatoes, a tiny Morton salt shaker, two still-warm chocolate chip cookies, and a red plaid thermos full of ice-cold milk.” (p. 3)
This is the lunch that Madeline’s mother, Elizabeth Zott, packed for her. It was “back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbeltless cars without giving it a second thought.” So begins Lessons in Chemistry, a novel by Bonnie Garmus.
Wait a minute, I thought when I read about this lunch. Kiwis and cherry tomatoes weren’t readily available even at specialty food markets until some time much later than 1961. (I looked it up. Kiwis were exotic and rare, and the hybridization of marketable cherry tomatoes didn’t happen until the 70s and 80s.)
Is this another work of seemingly historic fiction where the author doesn’t think the reader cares about accurate details, especially about food? The more I read, the more I thought that this book is a kind of elaborate joke about the sixties, so it indulges in many anachronisms for effect. Maybe. Sometimes, it is conscious of changing times, including details like this: “… he always did his running outside in tennis shoes. This made him an early jogger, meaning that he jogged long before jogging was popular, long before it was even called jogging.” (p. 59)
The fundamental subject of Lessons in Chemistry is the abuse and exclusion of women, ordinary women, from the important features of modern life. Women were not allowed generally to participate in intellectual and professional activities in the post-World-War-II era — a point made over and over in the life and experience of Elizabeth Zott. Women acquired an identity and a living only through their husbands; an unmarried woman like Elizabeth was reviled or abused, especially if like Elizabeth she had dared to give birth to a child and raise her on her own. Including Elizabeth, women in the novel as in history, resented this: what they were after was “Being taken seriously.”
Similar analysis of women's fate has been around since the sixties at least, and you could take it back to Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1700s. The events of Lessons in Chemistry occurred just before the publication of the famous book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, which took the marginalization of women very seriously, along with other social problems of the era. Garmus, it seems to me, is serious about these same issues, but her book makes the point in a very humorous way, with a variety of exaggerations for effect. For example, the main character, Elizabeth, makes her daughter Madeline into a prodigy — a nearly unbelievable one, in order to highlight the deficits of education and the assumptions of how mothers (not fathers) would be involved.
“Elizabeth had not only taught Madeline to read but to read highly complex things: newspapers, novels, Popular Mechanics.” (p. 234) It’s mentioned that at age 5 this remarkable child was reading Zane Grey, Faulkner, Dickens, Darwin’s Origin of species, and more. Madeline constantly astounds — or annoys — the school librarian with her requests with her exceptionalism, caused by her mother’s refusal to be average.
Six-Thirty, Elizabeth’s dog, has some remarkable characteristics, which also highlight some of the novel’s points about human oddities. Six-Thirty can read the minds of humans. He has a great deal of self-awareness, and a vocabulary that keeps growing. At last count he somehow knew over 900 English words, though he did not speak and we don’t know just what his word knowledge means. There are lots of interesting things about the dog such as that he finds “fetch” to be boring but he indulges humans who want to play with him. All for humorous effect.
The core of the novel is the character Elizabeth Zott’s TV show, where she talks about her real profession, chemistry, and applies it to cooking. In giving kitchen advice to housewives, she encourages them to think, to strive, and to respect and cherish education. And above all, to take themselves seriously!
In fact, the author really plays with us. Here’s a sample when Elizabeth’s boss agrees for her show to have a canned soup manufacturer as a sponsor. What does she do?
“Hello, viewers,” Elizabeth said three hours later. “And welcome back. See this?” She held a soup can close to the camera. “It’s a real time-saver.” From his producer’s chair, Walter gasped in gratitude. She was using the soup! “That’s because it’s full of artificial ingredients,” she said, tossing it with a clunk into a nearby garbage can. “Feed enough of it to your loved ones and they’ll eventually die off, saving you tons of time since you won’t have to feed them anymore.” …
“Luckily, there are much faster ways to kill off your loved ones,” she continued, walking to her easel, where a selection of mushroom drawings was on display, “and mushrooms are an excellent place to start. If it were me, I’d opt for the Amanita phalloides,” she said, tapping one of the drawings, “also known as the death cap mushroom. Not only does its poison withstand high heat, making it a go-to ingredient for a benign-looking casserole, but it very much resembles its nontoxic cousin, the straw mushroom. So if someone dies and there’s an inquiry, you can easily play the dumb housewife and plead mistaken mushroom identity.” (p. 268)
Discrimination against women had an even uglier side in the novel as in real life. A scene that's central to the theme of the book involves a heated interchange between Elizabeth and Miss Frask, a former secretary who had been gleefully instrumental in depriving her of a research position.
“I’m a chemist. Not a woman chemist. A chemist. A damn good one!”
“Well, I’m a personnel expert! An almost-psychologist,” Frask shouted.
“No really,” Zott said.
“I didn’t have a chance to finish, okay? What about you? Why aren’t you a PhD, Zott?” Frask shot back.
Elizabeth hardened, and without meaning to, revealed a fact about herself that she’d never told anyone other than a police officer. "Because I was sexually violated by my thesis advisor, then kicked out of the doctoral program, she shouted. "You?'
Frask looked back, shocked.
"Same," she said limply. (p. 178).
Sometimes I think the reason for the anachronisms is to bring home the point that women haven't made much progress, and that they are still staying home maybe watching cooking shows that seem to take them seriously, maybe relying on husbands for their identity, maybe being shut out of professional goals. This book made me laugh and made me think. So maybe it doesn’t matter if the details or right. Or maybe it does. I can’t decide.
Blog post © 2020 mae sander