- The book resonated with me in many ways and it was an easy read, an unusual love story between two chemists, who met over the sheer shortage of glass beakers in the lab.
We discussed “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus at my book club last month. I loved the title because it reminded me of my first cousin, a brilliant organic chemist, polymer scientist, and beloved professor. He always reminded us that “everything in life was linked to chemistry.” Not only did he talk about ionic, covalent, and hydrogen bonds like Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist of Garmus’ debut novel but he taught me to cook scientifically.
Today, not only did I take time to caramelize the onions in avocado oil at low heat but also did not rush through the process of cooking the tomatoes too fast, coaxing the lycopene out of them lovingly. As I added the masala to my boiled kidney beans, I thought of my cousin’s kitchen, the clean surface, sparkling pots and pans and the pride he took in his chef’s knives.
Much like the TV show “Supper at Six,’’ which became famous in “Lessons in Chemistry.” My cousin was a man but a zealous feminist. He was intelligent, rational, opinionated and heroic just like the heroine of this “so-called” historical fiction that celebrates women of the 1960s, like our mothers who were often relegated to the domestic fronts to cook supper and “pump” babies to use Bonnie’s parlance.
The book resonated with me in many ways and it was an easy read, an unusual love story between two chemists, who met over the sheer shortage of glass beakers in the lab. They discussed chemistry late at night, took up rowing together and shared an intelligent, empathetic dog (named) Six-Fifty, who had learned more than 390 words.
I was fascinated by their backstories, how Zott’s father made pistachios burst into flames. How Calvin was forced to read books that had pages cut out of them. The fate of a brilliant chemist who was not taken seriously because she was attractive (and assumed to be dumb by men), forced to leave her life’s work because she was carrying a child out of wedlock (even though she considered Calvin to be her soulmate, and it wasn’t her fault that he was hit by a car).
How Calvin’s family had a strange preponderance of dying by vehicle accidents. The Marcus Aurelius quote on Calvin’s tombstone: “Your Days are numbered, use them to throw open the windows of your soul,” that was later changed to a complex organic equation by Elizabeth. How Garmus commissions Elizabeth Zott to live an unconventional life by becoming a freelance scientist out of her own kitchen. Not only reducing every ingredient to a chemical formula. Brewing coffee in crucibles and test tubes and making spinach casseroles and chicken pot pies with scientific precision.
She breathes a new life into a “sexist” cooking show: “Supper at Six” by not conforming to the set, the tight dresses, and the mealy-mouthed cue cards and transforms it into a powerful show to teach women chemistry and confidence. Not only do her female viewers shake off their ennui and depression of “legalized slavery,” they become physically fit and some achieve their professional dreams.
Even Zott’s parenting methods are revolutionary, allowing her daughter Madeline or Mad Zott (based on the crunchy cookies that her dog loves). She allows her daughter to touch, eat, fall, burn, read, experience and develop her brain completely uninterrupted. As a result the child not only reads books that are unsuitable for kindergartners but in the process of making her family tree discovers the roots of her own family.
I loved the line from the book, “Children set the table because your mother needs a moment.” My mother only asked me to set the table because instead of learning to cook, I was busy reading books. I picked up cooking much later by reading, by observing my cousin the chemist cook, by watching cooking shows with my daughter, by not emulating my mother-in-law but perhaps because of the magic of the Maillard reaction between amino acids and sugars that made my mother’s cooking so nourishing that it changed my brain. Transformed my chemistry, my body and my destiny and made me appreciate her own efforts in gastronomy with a fierce devotion.
I devoured the book in one sitting from 9 to 2 at a wonderful Barnes and Noble in East Bay today. It was a wonderful experience to be surrounded by books and I was transported to my childhood as many young readers trickled in and out of the store talking excitedly about books, holding them up in their hands, opening them, discussing the plots and admiring the covers.
I am happy for Bonnie Garmus because her book is a commercial success. Book of the year! Bonnie who is a technical writer and copy editor wrote her first novel at five, then another at 12, then wrote three others. She was rejected 99 times (I think) but then she created Elizabeth Zott at (62) who is sharp and irrepressible in all 386 pages. We need more women like her who can’t be snuffed out or watered down by men. Women who can toss out misogynistic attitudes like a can of processed soup and make everything from scratch.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.