- The book is a historical fiction novel that follows the life of Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist who faces discrimination and obstacles in her academic and professional career in the 1950s and 1960s.
- The book is also a comedy and a romance, as Elizabeth falls in love with Calvin Evans, a fellow scientist and Nobel Prize nominee, but their relationship is threatened by jealousy, sabotage, and tragedy.
- The book is also a food and science book, as Elizabeth becomes the star of a TV cooking show called Supper at Six, where she uses her scientific knowledge and wit to teach women how to cook, challenge the status quo, and pursue their dreams.
Lessons in Chemistry (2022) is the story of Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant scientist who has the misfortune of being a woman in 1950s America. After a frustrating failed academic career, Zott finds success in an unlikely place: as the host of a television cooking show.
Introduction: The sweetly subversive tale of a scientist-turned-TV-cook.
Table of Contents
Elizabeth Zott is the beloved star of the wildly successful television show Supper at Six. But this isn’t a story about how Elizabeth succeeded as a TV personality after a lackluster academic career as a would-be research chemist. It’s the story of how Elizabeth fell into TV after failing to pursue the scientific career that was her true passion – and of how she eventually reignited those sidelined professional ambitions.
This summary to Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry might leave you feeling enraged at the patriarchal systems that hindered Elizabeth’s career, and held back countless other women during the 1950s and 60s. But it will also leave you inspired by Elizabeth’s no-nonsense, idiosyncratic approach to dealing with constricting gender stereotypes – and by her ultimate triumph over the forces of patriarchy and misogyny that suppressed her for so long.
A tale of two chemistry careers
When we first meet Elizabeth Zott, the central character in Lessons in Chemistry, she is better known to her legions of fans as “Luscious Lizzy” – a no-nonsense but winningly charismatic TV chef who is revolutionizing the way 1950s-era America cooks and eats. Even President Lyndon B. Johnson watches Lizzy religiously.
But before she became a television phenomenon, Lizzy was a chemist – specifically, an underpaid, underappreciated chemist. It wasn’t because she was bad at chemistry. On the contrary! It was because she was … a woman.
In the 1950s, the US wasn’t especially kind to ambitious women like Elizabeth Zott. Her employer, the Hastings Research Institute in California, is no exception. It offers her an unremarkable career working on minor lab projects where she’s paid far less than her male colleagues; the unspoken assumption that Elizabeth will make coffee and perform administrative tasks like a glorified secretary rather than a serious scientist; and an actual secretary, Miss Frask, who is always admonishing Elizabeth when she acts “unladylike” – and who has clearly never heard of words like feminism or sisterhood.
But there is one thing to like about Hastings: Calvin Evans, the institute superstar. Not that Elizabeth likes the brilliant chemist very much to start with – during an argument over beaker allocation, Calvin mistakes Elizabeth for a secretary. But he soon sees her for the talented, ambitious woman she is.
Though they’re equally intelligent, Calvin and Elizabeth’s careers have been very different so far. Calvin received 43 offers of employment after graduating from college, and ended up choosing Hastings because he liked the weather in California. Elizabeth chose to work at Hastings because it was the only offer she got. Elizabeth had initially planned to pursue a doctorate focusing on abiogenesis – the theory that, back in the days of primordial soup, living forms arose from nonliving forms. But then her lecherous supervisor, Dr. Mayer, sexually assaulted her in his office – and Elizabeth fended off his advances with a swift pencil stab to his hand. When Mayer massaged the optics of the situation to make it look like she attacked him, the promised pathway to her doctorate evaporated just as quickly as her reputation.
Elizabeth’s boss at Hastings, Dr. Donatti, hasn’t made any advances on her – but he seems determined to keep her from doing any of her own research. However, he does eventually approve her abiogenesis project after a rich donor contacts him. This donor has read a paper on abiogenesis by E. Zott and wants to fund further research into the area. Donatti lets the donor believe that Zott is a man, and quietly diverts most of the money to other projects.
Calvin and Elizabeth agree to work together in a strictly professional capacity – each hoping the other might not be so strict about the professionalism as their mutual attraction blossoms. Sparring over protein synthesis ensues. Soon enough, Elizabeth and Calvin are dating, though their relationship setup is far from conventional for the time. They move in together without getting married, or even engaged – Elizabeth doesn’t want to get married because she’s worried her own academic work will be overshadowed by Calvin’s. Besides, she’s been publishing under the last name of “Zott”; she can’t take on a new name now. So they get a dog, who they call Six-Thirty. And instead of paying rent to Calvin, who owns their shared home, Elizabeth decides to cook for him five nights a week. Cooking, she likes to remind Calvin, is chemistry.
They continue in this vein – scandalizing their colleagues, and joyously happy to have found each other. And then, one night while he’s out walking Six-Thirty, Calvin is hit by a police car and dies.
Reading Elizabeth Zott’s story, it becomes crystal clear why, even now, STEM fields continue to be male-dominated. At every step of her scientific career, Elizabeth is forced to justify her presence in academia to her doubtful colleagues. At Hastings, she’s routinely mistaken for an assistant. Even Calvin, the love of her life, initially takes her for a secretary. Her colleagues are dismissive of her work and take her support for granted. And, as the Dr. Mayer incident neatly illustrates, misogyny – ranging from lewd comments to outright assault – isn’t exactly frowned upon in the workplace.
In scenes where Elizabeth and Calvin playfully riff on topics from amino acids to silkworms and their pheromones, it’s abundantly clear that Elizabeth is Calvin’s intellectual match. Yet the prevailing attitudes of the 1950s work against her. Women, it’s assumed, aren’t serious scientists and shouldn’t have ambitions outside of marriage, child-rearing, and homemaking. If Elizabeth Zott wants to achieve professional success, she’ll have to overcome the many odds that are stacked against her.
Still dazed with grief, Elizabeth returns to Hastings a few days after Calvin’s funeral. In Calvin’s office, someone has packed up a cardboard box containing his personal effects – notebooks, papers, and other objects. As the officious secretary Miss Frask reprimands Elizabeth for trying to commandeer Calvin’s things when she isn’t his legal next of kin, Elizabeth uncovers a small blue box with a diamond ring nestled inside. She realizes that Calvin meant to marry her. She is overcome by sadness – and nausea. The nausea, it transpires, might not be grief-related. Even though Calvin’s possessions won’t legally pass to Elizabeth, he has left her something after all. Elizabeth is pregnant with Calvin’s child.
This new development presents a problem to Hastings. The mysterious donor, so keen to fund research into abiogenesis, wants to meet the Mr. Zott whose work he regards so highly. Unfortunately, there is no Mr. Zott – only a Ms. Zott who is unwed and, as management has just found out, pregnant.
Elizabeth, despite protesting that unmarried men are never fired for impregnating women, is dismissed. To make ends meet, she starts charging her former colleagues for consultations on their research projects. Why not get some credit and payment for the invisible work she’d been doing all along?
Nearly nine months after Calvin’s death, Elizabeth goes into labor. It’s a painful process, but Elizabeth feels joyful, like she’s on the cusp of a new life chapter – until she brings baby Madeline home, that is. Madeline cries and cries and cries, all the while playing what Elizabeth deems the world’s worst game: “Guess what I want now, mommy!” For Elizabeth, new motherhood is overwhelming. Science follows rules; Madeline doesn’t.
Fate intervenes in the form of a kindly neighbor: Harriet Sloane, a mother of four who’s trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, has long been fascinated by Elizabeth. And when she senses Elizabeth is struggling, she reaches out. Connected by the shared challenges of 1950s motherhood and womanhood, the two become close friends.
Madeline grows into a bright but introverted child. And, like all children, she is expensive. When Madeline is five, Elizabeth grits her teeth and returns to Hastings, in search of employment. Donatti is as reluctant to give Elizabeth a job as she is to ask for one. But, like Elizabeth, he sees no other option – the mysterious investor has been inquiring about Mr. Zott and his abiogenesis project again. So Elizabeth is hired.
Without Calvin, Hastings is even bleaker – Elizabeth is employed as a lab tech, mostly helping other men despite her qualifications and experience. But she finds a surprising ally in Miss Frask. Unlike Elizabeth, Miss Frask has done everything by the book, perfectly conforming to – and policing – gender stereotypes. But in the five years since she reprimanded Elizabeth for trying to retrieve her dead lover’s things from his office, Miss Frask has learned that being a “model woman” hasn’t saved her from misogyny – she’s still single, despite her best efforts to find a husband, and she’s failed to make any progress in her own career, while her male bosses get younger and younger. Finally, she reveals to Elizabeth that she’d never planned to be a secretary. In a trajectory that parallels Elizabeth’s own, Miss Frask studied science, pursued a doctorate, and was disenchanted by academia after being sexually assaulted by a male colleague in her department.
Elizabeth Zott, Harriet Sloane, and Miss Frask are all, on the surface level, enacting very different versions of femininity. Elizabeth is the unconventional, unmarried mother who is pursuing a career in a male-dominated field. Harriet is a stereotypical housewife: she is married, motherly, and spends her days cooking and cleaning at home. At 33, Miss Frask is considered a spinster and works in one of the few roles deemed appropriate for women in the 1950s.
This trio doesn’t appear to have much in common at first glance. In fact, Miss Frask is even set against Elizabeth early on in the story, and does her best to hamper Elizabeth’s career aspirations. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that they’ve all experienced the same misogyny and are equally dissatisfied. Whether or not they conform to the strict gender stereotypes of the time, each of these three women are left wanting more from their lot.
Star of the small screen
If it weren’t for six-year-old Amanda Pine and her lunch-stealing proclivities, America might never have heard of Luscious Lizzie. Elizabeth is incensed to find out that Madeline’s classmate, Amanda, has been taking the choicest bits of Madeline’s delicious packed lunches. She confronts Amanda’s father, Walter, and tells him this can’t happen again.
That same day, Dr. Donatti publishes an article about abiogenesis lifted straight from Elizabeth’s research files. The article is hailed as groundbreaking. Elizabeth quits her job at Hastings in protest.
Amanda’s father, Walter Pine, is a producer at a local television station with an afternoon slot to fill. And, after his confrontation with Elizabeth, he’s intrigued. He knows she’s a brilliant cook, and sees that she has a charismatic presence. He phones the Zott household and asks Elizabeth to host a new cooking show, Supper at Six, for a six-month run. Elizabeth hesitates – but, after all, cooking is science. And, as of today, she needs a job. She accepts.
Immediately, there are problems. Walter has envisioned a cozy, homey woman in an apron. Elizabeth wants to cook in a lab coat, using bunsen burners and oscilliscopes like she does at home. As a compromise, she wears a dress – but the kitchen is furnished with test tubes.
From the beginning, Elizabeth ignores the fluffy script she’s given. Instead, she speaks directly to the harried housewives the show is targeted at. She tells them she knows their time is precious; that being a partner and mother is a serious business; that their invisible labor is worthwhile; that cooking matters. She insists on referring to ingredients by their chemical compounds – for instance, saying CH₃COOH instead of vinegar. But this is live television – Walter has to roll with Elizabeth’s choices. And, across California, the show garners a warm reception.
Meanwhile, a first-grade assignment to create a family tree leads the precocious Madeline to begin questioning her father’s murky past. When they were newly dating, Calvin told Elizabeth that his family was all dead – but he didn’t reveal he’d been adopted as a baby. Hunting down information at the local library, Madeline meets Reverend Wakely – who knew her father. Calvin and Wakely studied chemistry together, and carried on a correspondence, but could never agree about matters of faith.
Back at the station, Elizabeth is aghast to find that the male presenters on the TV channel are getting paid substantially more than she is. But that’s not her biggest concern. When Elizabeth refuses to do a product placement for tinned soup, she’s summoned to meet the executive producer, Phil Lebensmal. He informs Elizabeth that she, and everyone who’s working on the show, is fired. The exchange turns heated. And then, in a scene reminiscent of the one in Dr. Mayer’s office, Phil lunges for Elizabeth while unzipping his trousers and exposing himself. Calmly, Elizabeth produces her 14-inch chef’s knife – and Phil promptly has a heart attack. While he’s recuperating in the hospital, Elizabeth and Walter discover a pile of letters in Phil’s office from television channels desperate to syndicate Supper at Six. They have a bonafide hit on their hands. And without Phil’s interference, they’re free to make the most of it.
Elizabeth is stubbornly herself in a society more concerned with projection than authenticity. It’s no surprise, then, that she quickly comes into conflict with the television studio, where management doesn’t understand why she’s so reluctant to step into the role of the impeccable, feminine homemaker.
But it’s because Elizabeth eschews frilly aprons and saccharine scripts that the show strikes a chord. She talks directly to her viewers about the challenges of homemaking while also validating how difficult and important the work of the homemaker is. It’s a refreshing change in a society where the image of the effortlessly perfect housewife reigns supreme.
Change is the only constant
While Elizabeth continues to shock and galvanize her viewership in equal measure, Madeline and Reverend Wakely are busy trying to get to the bottom of Madeline’s family history. They uncover records from the orphanage where Calvin spent his childhood after the death of his adoptive parents. The records show that Calvin’s biological family had been searching for him. But when the corrupt minister in charge of the orphanage lied and told them Calvin had died, Calvin’s family set up a trust in his honor instead. The aim of the trust was to fund scientific research.
Madeline meets Wakely’s typist, Miss Frask, who has since been fired from her position at Hastings. Frask lays bare the story of Elizabeth’s disastrous time at Hastings, finishing with the fact that Elizabeth had to quit because she was pregnant with Madeline. Madeline confronts her mother – now that she understands Elizabeth only took on Supper at Six to support her, she wants Elizabeth to go back to being an actual scientist rather than a TV chef.
Following the conversation with her daughter, Elizabeth has a revelation. After several years of television success, she decides to leave the show. When she informs her live studio audience that she’s returning to her career as a scientist, the shock is palpable. But Elizabeth calmly tells them that chemistry is change – and that everyone is chemically designed to change. She wraps up with an exhortation for her female viewers to change what they don’t like in their lives: change direction, change relationships, change the status quo. The show ends on a high.
But then months pass, and the offers of employment that Elizabeth confidently expected to roll in fail to materialize. In the end, Elizabeth is summoned to a meeting at Hastings, of all places. She’s brought face-to-face with Avery Parker, the mysterious donor who funded her abiogenesis project. There are two shockers here. First, Avery Parker is a woman. And second, she’s Calvin’s biological mother. She got pregnant with Calvin when she was 17 and unmarried, and was told that her son died during birth. Only later did she find out that this was a lie – that Calvin was actually put up for adoption. Avery fires Dr. Donatti and offers Elizabeth his role as Head of Chemistry. Elizabeth welcomes Avery into the family, and Avery is delighted to meet her granddaughter, Madeline.
The story concludes with Elizabeth opening a fresh notebook. Finally, she’ll be able to continue work on her abiogenesis project.
Abiogenesis posits that it was a process of radical change – nonliving forms transforming into living forms – that made life on Earth possible. But despite the fact she’s chosen this topic for her life’s work, Elizabeth has become stuck in the rut of TV fame. The confrontation with Madeline lets Elizabeth see that she’s done the exact thing she’s been telling her viewers not to do: she’s relinquished her own ambitions and sense of self.
In a parallel to abiogenesis, when Elizabeth decides to return to her passion – science – her life radically changes. She meets Avery, who recognizes her brilliance, gives her the role she deserves, and forever alters the makeup of her and Madeline’s tight-knit family unit. But Elizabeth isn’t the only character who undergoes profound change. Miss Frask is promoted to Head of Personnel at Hastings, the job she’s always coveted. And Harriet Sloane leaves her abusive husband for a relationship with the television producer Walter Pine.
Change, Elizabeth Zott’s story tells us, is a positive and necessary force. In fact, it’s the essence of life.
Elizabeth Zott longs to be taken seriously as a chemist but is thwarted by the patriarchal society she lives in. When she falls in love with her brilliant colleague, Calvin, the future looks brighter. But then he tragically dies; pregnant with his illegitimate child, Elizabeth is forced out of academia. Instead, she begins hosting a cooking show that is soon a nationwide sensation. In the show, she urges American women to take themselves, their needs, and their dreams seriously. She fulfills her own dreams when, at the peak of her TV fame, she returns to academia to resume her work as a chemist.
BONNIE GARMUS is a copywriter and creative director who has worked widely in the fields of technology, medicine, and education. She’s an open-water swimmer, a rower, and mother to two pretty amazing daughters. Born in California and most recently from Seattle, she currently lives in London with her husband and her dog, 99.
Science, History, Society, Culture, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance, Feminism, Historical, Adult, Contemporary, Adult Fiction, 20th Century Historical Fiction, Cooks, Chefs, Bartenders, & Waiters, Film, Television & Radio, Humorous Fiction, Sexism, Feminism & Gender Equality, Women vs. Society’s Expectations, Good Morning America Book Club Picks 2022, Oprah Daily’s Favorite Books of 2022
The book follows the life of Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist who faces discrimination and obstacles in her academic and professional career in the 1950s and 1960s. She falls in love with Calvin Evans, a fellow scientist and Nobel Prize nominee, but their relationship is threatened by jealousy, sabotage, and tragedy. After losing her job at a research institute, Elizabeth becomes the unexpected star of a TV cooking show called Supper at Six, where she uses her scientific knowledge and wit to teach women not only how to cook, but how to challenge the status quo and pursue their dreams.
Lessons in Chemistry is a captivating and heartwarming exploration of science, love, and the pursuit of one’s dreams. Garmus’s skillful storytelling and authentic portrayal of the scientific world make for a truly engaging read. The book is full of humor, insight, and emotion, as well as fascinating facts and recipes. Elizabeth is a remarkable heroine, who is smart, resilient, and inspiring. She faces many challenges and hardships, but never gives up on her passion for chemistry and her desire to make a difference. The book also features a colorful cast of supporting characters, such as Elizabeth’s loyal friend and producer Maxine, her eccentric mentor Dr. Hirschfeld, and her adorable daughter Ruthie. The book also explores the social and cultural issues of the era, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and the Cold War. The book is not only entertaining, but also educational and empowering. It celebrates the power of science, curiosity, and creativity, as well as the importance of friendship, family, and love. Lessons in Chemistry is a delightful and uplifting novel that will appeal to fans of historical fiction, comedy, romance, and food. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story with a strong female protagonist.