Woman’s liberation in the 1960s has never been so powerfully portrayed as in this book, where a woman is up against the male world of scientific research. Elizabeth Zott wants to study abiogenesis for God’s sake, no less than the origins of life, but that goes pear shape because she’s a woman and the very worst obstacles are thrown in her way along with endless casual misogyny. So she makes her name on the telly, teaching cookery as you’ve never known it before – as a science.
She falls in love with a fellow scientist, a man both brilliant and slightly mad, as she is. Here is a sample of their conversation, and I can’t help thinking I’d like to sit at dinner with them and try to keep up.
“I think my father’s talent for spontaneous combustion really made him stand out.” “Wait. What?” “It’s really hard to ignore someone who shouts, ‘Give me a sign,’ and then something bursts into flame.” “Wait. Are you saying—” “Calvin,” she said, reverting to her standard scientific tone, “did you know pistachios are naturally flammable? It’s because of their high fat content. Normally pistachios are stored under fairly rigid conditions of humidity, temperature, and pressure, but should those conditions be altered, the pistachio’s fat-cleaving enzymes produce free fatty acids that are broken down when the seed takes in oxygen and sheds carbon dioxide. Result? Fire. I will credit my father for two things: he could conjure a spontaneous combustion whenever he needed a convenient sign from God.” She shook her head. “Boy, did we go through the pistachios.”
You get the idea; this is a very readable book, funny, and smart in all the right ways, with unexpected juxtapositions (pistachios and spontaneous combustion?) and a main character who doesn’t fit into any box but is wonderful in the world.
Elizabeth is not good at normal friendships but in Calvin she finds love and a kindred spirit. “You don’t need to understand chemistry at an advanced level to appreciate the rarity of our situation,” she said. “Calvin and I didn’t just click; we collided…You’re familiar with the big bang theory, aren’t you?” She went on to talk about their love affair using words like “expansion,” “density,” “heat,” emphasizing that what underlay their passion was a mutual respect for the other’s capabilities. “Do you know how extraordinary that is?” she said. “That a man would treat his lover’s work as seriously as his own?”
Calvin is her pass into to the scientific research community (before he isn’t, but no spoilers here), introduces her to the rowing fraternity (again, a male bastion) and together they get a dog. This dog is a funny character to introduce into a book about scientists. He is very much a character and thinks like a human and is very receptive to Elizabeth’s moods and needs. But he has a personality, his own point of view and occasionally takes over the storytelling, with observations about Elizabeth and her life that we may have missed. He is the Mary Poppins nanny, he collects Elizabeth’s daughter, Mad, from school, checks out newcomers, protects the family.
Eventually, picking up only one person every five or so years, Elizabeth builds a small but sympathetic community. There are lots of books out there that gather oddballs together to make a twee composite whole – but Lessons in Chemistry doesn’t have that feeling of contrivance. That 1960s world (the dawn of modern feminism) did produce an underground cohort of both women and men who threw off the shackles of cultural expectation and accepted each other on their own terms. I recognise this movement from my parents’ generation. The individuals who were ahead of their time, like Elizabeth’s friends here, banded together until the world caught up.
Can’t really imagine who wouldn’t enjoy this book? I certainly know a lot of people who have loved it. And Elizabeth Zott I liked very much.