Lessons in Chemistry
reviewed by Carolyn Scott
The 1960s was not a good time to be a career woman of any sort, let alone a woman who wanted nothing more than to be a research chemist. Female scientist Elizabeth Zott completed her Masters degree in Chemistry at UCLA, but had her offer to enrol in a doctorate rescinded when she stabbed the head of the research team with a pencil after he attempted to take advantage of her.
She found a position as a junior scientist at Hastings Research Institute in southern California, although found the lab culture to be just as toxic there. She was considered difficult because not only would she not put up with being groped, she wouldn’t make the coffee or copy notes and didn’t like the senior scientists taking credit for her work. The only other women at the Institute were mostly secretarial staff and were not sympathetic, disliking her for being beautiful and having career aspirations.
At this time, Calvin Evans was the star scientist at Hastings Research Institute in southern California, a Nobel prize winner in the making with a large lab and a large budget assigned to him while Elizabeth had to share a cramped lab with others and scrounge for equipment. However, Calvin was also not much liked by others. Tall and lanky, he was antisocial and only interested in one thing outside of Chemistry and that was rowing. In fact, rowing was the reason he accepted the job at Hastings with its sunny climate, instead of at one of the prestigious institutes that were headhunting him.
Somehow Calvin and Elizabeth were made for each other and after clashing in the lab and again at a theatre, fell in love. They were superbly happy, moved in together despite this being scandalous at the time. Elizabeth refused marriage and didn’t want children but they did acquire a dog they call Six-Thirty and were deliriously happy together, despite what their colleagues thought of them.
One year later, and Elizabeth found herself on her own with a new baby, fired from Hastings for being an unmarried mother. She turned her kitchen into a lab to continue her work, and did her best to make ends meet while bringing up her little girl Madeline, nicknamed Mad. When a father at her daughter’s school, who was a TV producer, discovered that she was not only beautiful (and thus made for TV) but also a superb cook, he invited her to try out as the host of a cooking show on afternoon TV. Elizabeth agreed but refused to do the show the way the station wanted, instead putting her own unique stamp on it and instructing women in the chemistry of cooking.
Both Calvin and Elizabeth were the products of unhappy childhoods, Elizabeth’s due to dysfunctional parents – her father now in jail for being a charlatan and her mother living in Brazil evading the US taxman. Calvin’s background was more of a mystery. He told Elizabeth his parents were killed in a car crash and then after the aunt who was caring for him died he was placed in a boys’ home, where he nevertheless received a good education due to a secret benefactor. However, he also once told a friend that he wished his father was dead. When Mad is given a school assignment to map her family tree, she decides to find out more about her father’s past and the fairy godmother/godfather who helped educate him.
This debut novel is one of the most original I have ever read. There is a lot of humour in the plot and dialogue and it is filled with some delightful characters, including a wonderful dog with a large vocabulary and Mad, an infant prodigy who is totally engaging, as well as some odious male scientists who don’t think women are smart enough to be scientists, but are happy to take credit for their work. And then there is Elizabeth herself, who is unique, single minded and determined to be herself regardless of society’s rules and the judgement of others. Her cooking show is hilarious as she refuses to be coy and sexy for the camera but teaches women that they have brains they can use and that their role in nurturing their family is of vital importance and should be valued more.
With thanks to Random House UK via Netgalley for a copy to read. Publication expected April 5.