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Book Summary: Lessons in Chemistry – A Novel

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.

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 Blink 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.

Book Summary: Lessons in Chemistry - A Novel

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.

Work-life imbalance

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.

About the author

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


All’s fair in love and chemistry. It’s 1960s California and there are certain things that women just don’t do. When scientist Elizabeth Zott finds herself the host of a television cooking show, she kicks off a revolution that does more than just challenge the status quo. You will fall in love with the cast of characters in this debut novel that has already been picked up as an Apple TV+ series.

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • GOOD MORNING AMERICA BOOK CLUB PICK • A must-read debut! Meet Elizabeth Zott: a “formidable, unapologetic and inspiring” (PARADE) scientist in 1960s California whose career takes a detour when she becomes the unlikely star of a beloved TV cooking show in this novel that is “irresistible, satisfying and full of fuel. It reminds you that change takes time and always requires heat” (The New York Times Book Review).

“A unique heroine … you’ll find yourself wishing she wasn’t fictional.” —Seattle Times

Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel–prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with—of all things—her mind. True chemistry results.

But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

Laugh-out-loud funny, shrewdly observant, and studded with a dazzling cast of supporting characters, Lessons in Chemistry is as original and vibrant as its protagonist.


GOODREADS CHOICE AWARD WINNER • A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Elle, Oprah Daily, Newsweek, GoodReads, Bookpage, Kirkus

ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, Bustle, Real Simple, Parade, CNN, Today, E! News, Library Journal

“In Garmus’s debut novel, a frustrated chemist finds herself at the helm of a cooking show that sparks a revolution. Welcome to the 1960s, where a woman’s arsenal of tools was often limited to the kitchen—and where Elizabeth Zott is hellbent on overturning the status quo one meal at a time.” —The New York Times

“Strikingly relevant…Darkly funny and poignant…Lessons in Chemistry’s excellent experiment [is] quirky and heartwarming.” —The Atlantic

“The most delightful novel I read this year—fresh and surprising—was Lessons in Chemistry: a fish-out-of-water story about a feminist hero who never stops pushing for what’s right. (I laughed out loud!)” —Philip Galanes, The New York Times

“Elizabeth Zott is going to be an important character to a lot of people . . . Absolute chemistry.” —Scott Simon, NPR

“An irresistible buoyancy, along with a deliberately sharp bite. Garmus’s novel focuses on a female scientist whose ambitions are impeded—and then rerouted—by a world not yet ready for her.” —Frank Bruni, The New York Times

“[Garmus] delivers an assured voice, an indelible heroine and relatable love stories…At the center of the novel is Elizabeth Zott, a gifted research chemist, absurdly self-assured and immune to social convention…Elizabeth is a feminist and modern thinker […] in a world nowhere ready for her mind, character or ambition…[Garmus] charm[s]. She’s created an indelible assemblage of stubborn, idiosyncratic characters. She’s given us a comic novel at precisely the moment we crave one.” —Washington Post

“Feminism is the catalyst that makes [Lessons in Chemistry] fizz like hydrochloric acid on limestone. Elizabeth Zott does not have ‘moxie’; she has courage. She is not a ‘girl boss’ or a ‘lady chemist’; she’s a groundbreaker and an expert in abiogenesis…To file Elizabeth Zott among the pink razors of the book world is to miss the sharpness of Garmus’s message. Lessons in Chemistry will make you wonder about all the real-life women born ahead of their time—women who were sidelined, ignored and worse because they weren’t as resourceful, determined and lucky as Elizabeth Zott. She’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.” —New York Times Book Review

“Between the outrageous sexism and the bitter misfortune that thwart our heroine at every turn, this may not sound like a comic novel, but it is. Full of charm, energy and hope—and featuring a really great dog—it’s one to savor.” —People Magazine

“Darkly funny and poignant, Lessons in Chemistry paints an extraordinary portrait of an unusual life in 1960s California…Irresistible, a gorgeous tribute to resilience and the many types of love that sustain us.” —Oprah Daily

“A kicky debut, this book tackles feminism, resilience, and rationalism in a fun and refreshing way.” —BuzzFeed

“It’s the world versus Elizabeth Zott, an extraordinary woman determined to live on her own terms, and I had no trouble choosing a side. Lessons in Chemistry is a page-turning and highly satisfying tale: zippy, zesty, and Zotty.” —Maggie Shipstead, author of Great Circle

“Lessons in Chemistry is a breath of fresh air—a witty, propulsive, and refreshingly hopeful novel populated with singular characters. This book is an utter delight—wry, warm, and compulsively readable.” —Claire Lombardo, author of The Most Fun We Ever Had

“On par with Beth Harmon of The Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Zott swept me away with her intellect, honesty, and unapologetic selfhood. Lessons in Chemistry is a story for all the smart girls who refuse to dumb themselves down despite a culture that demands otherwise. Though a creation of the 50s & 60s, Zott is a feminist icon for our time.” —Rachel Yoder, author of Nightbitch

“A fun, feminist charmer, Bonnie Garmus’s novel Lessons in Chemistry follows singular single mother Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist in a man’s world—1960s America—as she becomes an unlikely cooking-show host and the role model her daughter deserves.” —Martha Stewart Living

“[A] delightful debut…Elizabeth Zott, Garmus’ unflappable heroine, is no cheerily lilting [Julia] Child…[Garmus] skillfully moves her narrative forward and backward, filling in the empty spaces in Elizabeth’s story. It’s a novel full of dark moments…and yet Lessons in Chemistry feels richly funny…Elizabeth Zott is a unique heroine, and you find yourself wishing she wasn’t fictional: A lot of us—perhaps even Julia Child—might have enjoyed watching ‘Supper at Six.’” —The Seattle Times

“Lessons in Chemistry catalyzes science, cooking, and humor…Elizabeth [Zott]—determined, practical, uncompromising—shines brightest.” —Christian Science Monitor

“[Garmus] presents a rollicking feminist tale full of humor and hope even as she doesn’t shy away from life’s ugliness. Clever and sharp, Lessons in Chemistry has a winning formula.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Find this runaway hit where history meets humor. The book follows a chemist in the 1960s who doesn’t get the respect she deserves. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she becomes the host of a famous cooking show. With her platform, she encourages viewers to push the boundaries the same way she did at work.” —

“A bold, smart, and often hilarious look at the value of so-called women’s work.” —Real Simple

“Garmus tells a familiar story in a completely original voice in her delightful debut novel…Zott is an unforgettable protagonist, logical and literal and utterly herself…The novel deftly mixes comedy and tragedy, with only one very clear villain: the patriarchal culture of mid-20th century America, the days of which are numbered because of women like Zott…For those who admire a confident, bone-dry, and hilarious authorial voice, this novel achieves the difficult task of being both sharply satirical and heartwarming at the same time.” —Historical Novels Review

“If you can imagine Julia Child channeling a little bit of Lucille Ball, and all of the science edginess of Madame Curie, then you’ll have a really good idea of the humor and the wit and the warmth that just shine through this entire novel.” —Minnesota Public Radio News

“I loved it and am devastated to have finished it.” —Nigella Lawson, author of Cook, Eat, Repeat

“Garmus’ writing is extraordinary, and her insightful commentaries on life, religion, bigotry, misogyny and stupidity result in passages that are absolutely worth sharing…Be prepared to laugh, grieve, and root for Elizabeth.” —BookReporter

“[An] energetic debut…A more adorable plea for rationalism and gender equality would be hard to find.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“Indefatigable and formidable, Elizabeth pushes the bounds of how women and their work are perceived in this thoroughly engaging debut novel.” —Booklist

“Like a woman-centric “Mad Men”…A witty and sharp dramedy about resilience and found families…Readers won’t be able to get enough of Elizabeth and her makeshift family. Lessons in Chemistry is a story to return to again and again.” —BookPage

“While the novel focuses on serious themes of misogyny, feminism, family, and self-worth, it never gets didactic. The characters are rich and original, the story sarcastic and humorous, and the novel with all its twists and turns, difficult to put down. Zott is aloof and amazing, rational and revolutionary. Like Garmus, you may even find yourself channeling Elizabeth, asking ‘Now what would Elizabeth Zott do?’” —LA Daily News

“A smart, funny, big-hearted debut combining chemical elements into what seems a winning formula—one whose breakneck pace and gently ironic tone should appeal to readers of literary-commercial hits by American authors such as Katherine Heiny, Emma Straub and Curtis Sittenfeld.” —Sunday Times (UK)

“Elizabeth Zott is the smart, fierce star of Garmus’s witty debut…Brilliant.” —Mail on Sunday(UK)

“The enchanting story of Elizabeth Zott never belittles the offence of sexism, but neither – miraculously – does it ever take you more than a few sentences away from a smile, a chuckle, or a laugh out loud. Bonnie Garmus’ gift is to expose the sting and injustice of being a woman in a man’s world with a feather light touch that keeps our spirits buoyant and our hearts strong. I honestly don’t know how she does it. This is a remarkable book by a remarkable writer.” —Jo Browning Roe, author of A Terrible Kindness

“A fabulous novel. Compelling, satisfying, a real page-turner.” —Nina Stibbe, author of Reasons to Be Cheerful

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Chapter 1

November 1961

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; back before anyone knew there’d even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.

Despite that certainty, she made her way to the lab to pack her daughter’s lunch.
Fuel for learning, Elizabeth Zott wrote on a small slip of paper before tucking it into her daughter’s lunch box. Then she paused, her pencil in midair, as if reconsidering. Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win, she wrote on another slip. Then she paused again, tapping her pencil against the table. It is not your imagination, she wrote on a third. Most people are awful. She placed the last two on top.

Most young children can’t read, and if they can, it’s mostly words like “dog” and “go.” But Madeline had been reading since age three and, now, at age five, was already through most of Dickens.

Madeline was that kind of child—the kind who could hum a Bach concerto but couldn’t tie her own shoes; who could explain the earth’s rotation but stumbled at tic-tac-toe. And that was the problem. Because while musical prodigies are always celebrated, early readers aren’t. And that’s because early readers are only good at something others will eventually be good at, too. So being first isn’t special—it’s just annoying.

Madeline understood this. That’s why she made it a point each morning—after her mother had left and while her babysitter neighbor, Harriet, was busy—to extract the notes from the lunch box, read them, then store them with all the other notes that she kept in a shoebox in the back of her closet. Once at school she pretended to be like all the other kids: basically illiterate. To Madeline, fitting in mattered more than anything. And her proof was irrefutable: her mother had never fit in and look what happened to her.

It was there, in the Southern Californian town of Commons, where the weather was mostly warm, but not too warm, and the sky was mostly blue, but not too blue, and the air was clean because air just was back then, that she lay in her bed, eyes closed, and waited. Soon she knew there’d be a gentle kiss on her forehead, a careful tuck of covers about her shoulders, a murmuring of “Seize the day” in her ear. In another minute, she’d hear the start of a car engine, a crunch of tires as the Plymouth backed down the drive, a clunky shift from reverse to first. And then her permanently depressed mother would set off for the television studio where she would don an apron and walk out onto a set.

The show was called Supper at Six, and Elizabeth Zott was its indisputable star.

Chapter 2


Once a research chemist, Elizabeth Zott was a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who was not average and never would be.
She was, as all good stars are, discovered. Although in Elizabeth’s case, there was no malt shop, no accidental bench sighting, no lucky introduction. Instead, it was theft—specifically food theft—that led to her discovery.

The story was simple: a child named Amanda Pine, who enjoyed food in a way some therapists consider significant, was eating Madeline’s lunch. This was because Madeline’s lunch was not average. While all the other children gummed their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Madeline opened her luncth 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.

These contents were why everyone wanted Madeline’s lunch, Madeline included. But Madeline offered it to Amanda because friendship requires sacrifice, but also because Amanda was the only one in the entire school who didn’t make fun of the odd child Madeline already knew she was.

It wasn’t until Elizabeth noticed that Madeline’s clothes began to hang on her bony frame like bad drapes that she began to wonder what was going on. According to her calculations, Madeline’s daily intake was exactly what her daughter required for optimal development, making weight loss scientifically inconceivable. A growth spurt, then? No. She’d accounted for growth in her calculations. Early onset food disorder? Not likely. Madeline ate like a horse at dinner. Leukemia? Definitely not.

Elizabeth wasn’t an alarmist—she wasn’t the type who lay awake at night imagining her daughter was plagued by incurable disease. As a scientist, she always sought a sensible explanation, and the moment she met Amanda Pine, her little lips stained a pomodoro-sauce red, she knew she’d found it.

“Mr. Pine,” Elizabeth said, sweeping into the local television studio and past a secretary on a Wednesday afternoon, “I’ve been calling you for three days, and not once have you managed the courtesy of a return call. My name is Elizabeth Zott. I am Madeline Zott’s mother—our children attend Woody Elementary together—and I’m here to tell you that your daughter is offering my daughter friendship under false pretenses.” And because he looked confused, she added, “Your daughter is eating my daughter’s lunch.”

“L-lunch?” Walter Pine managed, as he took in the woman who stood resplendent before him, her white lab coat casting an aura of holy light save for one detail: the initials “E.Z.” emblazoned in red just above the pocket.

“Your daughter, Amanda,” Elizabeth charged again, “eats my daughter’s lunch. Apparently, it’s been going on for months.”

Walter could only stare. Tall and angular, with hair the color of burnt buttered toast pulled back and secured with a pencil, she stood, hands on hips, her lips unapologetically red, her skin luminous, her nose straight. She looked down at him like a battlefield medic assessing whether or not he was worth saving.

“And the fact that she pretends to be Madeline’s friend to get her lunch,” she continued, “is absolutely reprehensible.”

“Wh-who are you again?” stammered Walter.

“Elizabeth Zott!” she barked back. “Madeline Zott’s mother!”

Walter nodded, trying to understand. As a longtime producer of afternoon television, he knew drama. But this? He continued to stare. She was stunning. He was literally stunned by her. Was she auditioning for something?

“I’m sorry,” he finally said. “But all the nurse roles have been cast.”

“I beg your pardon?” she snapped.

There was a long pause.

“Amanda Pine,” she repeated.

He blinked. “My daughter? Oh,” he said, suddenly nervous. “What about her? Are you a doctor? Are you from the school?” He leapt to his feet.

“Good god, no,” Elizabeth replied. “I’m a chemist. I’ve come all the way over here from Hastings on my lunch hour because you’ve failed to return my calls.” And when he continued to look baffled, she clarified. “Hastings Research Institute? Where Groundbreaking Research Breaks Ground?” She exhaled at the vacuous tagline.

“The point is, I put a great amount of effort into making a nutritious lunch for Madeline—something that I’m sure you also strive to do for your child.” And when he continued to stare at her blankly, she added, “Because you care about Amanda’s cognitive and physical development. Because you know such development is reliant on offering the correct balance of vitamins and minerals.”

“The thing is, Mrs. Pine is—”

“Yes, I know. Missing in action. I tried to contact her but was told she lives in New York.”

“We’re divorced.”

“Sorry to hear, but divorce has little to do with lunch.”

“It might seem that way, but—”

“A man can make lunch, Mr. Pine. It is not biologically impossible.”

“Absolutely,” he agreed, fumbling with a chair. “Please, Mrs. Zott, please sit.”

“I have something in the cyclotron,” she said irritably, glancing at her watch. “Do we have an understanding or not?”


“Subatomic particle accelerator.”

Elizabeth glanced at the walls. They were filled with framed posters advertising melodramatic soap operas and gimmicky game shows.

“My work,” Walter said, suddenly embarrassed by their crassness. “Maybe you’ve seen one?”

She turned back to face him. “Mr. Pine,” she said in a more conciliatory manner, “I’m sorry I don’t have the time or resources to make your daughter lunch. We both know food is the catalyst that unlocks our brains, binds our families, and determines our futures. And yet . . .” She trailed off, her eyes growing narrow as she took in a soap opera poster featuring a nurse giving a patient some unusual care. “Does anyone have the time to teach the entire nation to make food that matters? I wish I did, but I don’t. Do you?”

As she turned to leave, Pine, not wanting her to go or fully understanding what he was about to hatch, said quickly, “Wait, please just stop—please. What—what was that thing you just said? About teaching the whole nation how to make food that—that matters?”

Supper at Six debuted four weeks later. And while Elizabeth wasn’t entirely keen on the idea—she was a research chemist—she took the job for the usual reasons: it paid more and she had a child to support.

From the first day Elizabeth donned an apron and walked onto the set, it was obvious: she had “it,” the “it” being that elusive, entirely watchable quality. But she was also a person of substance—someone so forthright, so no-nonsense that people didn’t know what to make of her. While other cooking shows featured good-natured chefs gleefully tipping back the sherry, Elizabeth Zott was serious. She never smiled. She never made jokes. And her dishes were as honest and down-to-earth as she was.

Within six months, Elizabeth’s show was a rising star. Within a year, an institution. And within two years, it had proven its uncanny power not only to unite parents with their children, but citizens with their country. It is not an exaggeration to say that when Elizabeth Zott finished cooking, an entire nation sat down to eat.

Even Vice President Lyndon Johnson watched her show. “You want to know what I think?” he said as he waved off a persistent reporter. “I think you ought to write less and watch TV more. Start with Supper at Six—that Zott, she knows what she’s doing.”

And she did. You’d never find Elizabeth Zott explaining how to make tiny cucumber sandwiches or delicate soufflés. Her recipes were hearty: stews, casseroles, things made in big metal pans. She stressed the four food groups. She believed in decent portions. And she insisted that any dish worth making was worth making in under an hour. She ended every show with her signature line: “Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

But then a prominent reporter wrote an article entitled “Why We’ll Eat Whatever She Dishes Out” and, in passing, referred to her as “Luscious Lizzie,” a nickname that, because it was both apt and alliterative, stuck to her as quickly as it did the paper it was printed on. From that day forward, strangers called her Luscious, but her daughter, Madeline, called her Mom, and although she was just a child, Madeline could already see that the nickname belittled her mother’s talents. She was a chemist, not a TV cook. And Elizabeth, self-conscious in front of her only child, felt ashamed.

Sometimes Elizabeth lay in bed at night and wondered how her life had come to this. But the wonder never lasted long because she already knew.

His name was Calvin Evans.

Chapter 3

Hastings Research Institute

Ten Years Earlier, January 1952

Calvin Evans also worked at Hastings Research Institute, but unlike Elizabeth, who worked in crowded conditions, he had a large lab all to himself.

Based on his track record, maybe he deserved the lab. By age nineteen, he had already contributed critical research that helped famed British chemist Frederick Sanger clinch the Nobel Prize; at twenty-two, he discovered a faster way to synthesize simple proteins; at twenty-four, his breakthrough concerning the reactivity of dibenzoselenophene put him on the cover of Chemistry Today. In addition, he’d authored sixteen scientific papers, received invitations to ten international conferences, and had been offered a fellowship at Harvard. Twice. Which he turned down. Twice. Partly because Harvard had rejected his freshman application years earlier, and partly because—well, actually, there was no other reason. Calvin was a brilliant man, but if he had one flaw, it was his ability to hold a grudge.

On top of his grudge holding, he had a reputation for impatience. Like so many brilliant people, Calvin just couldn’t understand how no one else got it. He was also an introvert, which isn’t really a flaw but often manifests itself as standoffishness. Worst of all, he was a rower.

As any non-rower can tell you, rowers are not fun. This is because rowers only ever want to talk about rowing. Get two or more rowers in a room and the conversation goes from normal topics like work or weather to long, pointless stories about boats, blisters, oars, grips, ergs, feathers, workouts, catches, releases, recoveries, splits, seats, strokes, slides, starts, settles, sprints, and whether the water was really “flat” or not. From there, it usually progresses to what went wrong on the last row, what might go wrong on the next row, and whose fault it was and/or will be. At some point the rowers will hold out their hands and compare calluses. If you’re really unlucky, this could be followed by several minutes of head-bowing reverence as one of them recounts the perfect row where it all felt easy.

Other than chemistry, rowing was the only thing Calvin had true passion for. In fact, rowing is why Calvin applied to Harvard in the first place: to row for Harvard was, in 1945, to row for the best. Or actually second best. University of Washington was the best, but University of Washington was in Seattle and Seattle had a reputation for rain. Calvin hated rain. Therefore, he looked further afield—to the other Cambridge, the one in England, thus exposing one of the biggest myths about scientists: that they’re any good at research.

The first day Calvin rowed on the Cam, it rained. The second day it rained. Third day: same.

“Does it rain like this all the time?” Calvin complained as he and his teammates hoisted the heavy wooden boat to their shoulders and lumbered out to the dock. “Oh never,” they reassured him,

“Cambridge is usually quite balmy.” And then they looked at one another as if to confirm what they had already long suspected: Americans were idiots.