Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.
All Elizabeth Zott wants to do is science, specifically research into abiogenesis, the origin of life on Earth. But as a single mother in 1961 her options are limited. So when the father of one of her daughter’s schoolmates offers her a cooking show, with better pay, it’s hard for her to say no. Cooking is chemistry after all, she can teach the housewives of America science from their own living rooms!
I loved the idea of a science-based cooking show, Elizabeth is right, cooking is science. I went in with high hopes and was a little bit disappointed in Lessons in Chemistry. It was an easy read, and amusing at times, and I know loads of people love it already. So maybe I was approaching it too seriously.
Elizabeth echoes our own 21st century ideas of feminism. It doesn’t really pick apart what it was like to be a woman fighting against the system in the 50s and 60s. As the story goes back to the early 50s, Elizabeth fends off a sexual assault with a pencil, and then the institution she is working at believes her side of the story. She does lose her position for it, because they needed to keep the more senior scientist for prestige, but this was the first of several events that felt like todays’ standards were applied.
The first half of the book is about her relationship with Mad’s father, a genius scientist with a tragic backstory, which you will have to read about before learning more about Elizabeth’s TV show. There is a lot about rowing, which made me nearly DNF.
Once a research chemist, Elizabeth Zott was a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanour of someone who was not average and never would be.
Elizabeth is very fortunate in her opportunities. Beautiful, intelligent, naturally good at rowing. She does have tragedy in her life but she just wasn’t a particularly realistic character to me. It’s all idealised and problems glossed over in a jaunty tone. The story veers into serious areas such as sexual assault, suicide, homophobia and child abuse.
Her daughter, Mad, not short for Madeleine but due to a miscommunication after labour, is super intelligent, and so is their dog. The dog leaves a copy of Proust lying around to suggest the name for the kid. My dog knows lots of words, but she’s not going to leave subtle messages lying around in the form of hard to read texts.
The bit I was most excited about was just odd. Her cooking show starts off with a lesson in ionic bonds, explaining them in relation to marriage rather the food and diverging into economics. Why not start with the basic chemical reactions happening when you cook, like yeast creating carbon dioxide to create air in bread? The Maillard reaction is mentioned in passing, but we never got to hear how she would apply that to marriages…or explain its importance in cooking!
Life wasn’t a hypothesis one could test and retest without consequence – something always crashed eventually.
I have no idea why she wasn’t fired after the first episode, it’s one thing subtly working in your own agenda but she seemed to constantly fly in the face of what the studio wanted.
Anyway, if this still sounds like something you’d enjoy, Waterstones have a very cool special edition of Lessons in Chemistry.
Lessons in Chemistry is published by Transworld and will be available in hardback, ebook and audiobook editions from 5th April 2022. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.
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