Its often hard to objectively review the quality of a book when its subject matter resonates with you so much.
Fortunately for me, I don’t have to do that with Lessons in Chemistry because its one of those rare unicorns that appear every once in a while: a book with a story worth telling that also happens to be incredibly well-written.
There are so many things I want to say about this book, so many threads to pull, that I hardly know where to start. I think I should just start with the main character: Elizabeth Zott.
Elizabeth strives first and foremost to be herself, in all things. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a character who is so uncompromising in her principles and beliefs (sometimes to the point of lunacy, depending on who you ask). She will make her own way in the world and refuses to use her relationships with others to get ahead. She will raise her kid her own way, do sports in her own way, and dammit, she will cook in her own way – using chemistry apparatus and processes should she so desire if only because it brings her the most joy and pleasure to do it that way.
I think it’s the hardest thing to do, to accept who you are and not be afraid to show it to the world. The world can be such a harsh and judgmental place. Who amongst us can say that we are immune to other people’s opinions about us? We all want to be liked and accepted and to be considered normal, so we tend to hide away little pieces of who we are, and adopt other people’s beliefs and wants as our own, in order to fit in.
We don’t even see the danger of doing that until it’s too late and we’ve lost all sense of who we are and we wake up one morning and we realise we don’t even know how we really want our breakfast eggs to be cooked (thank you Julia Roberts for the analogy, I’ve always preferred sunny-side up).
Elizabeth doesn’t do that, or at least she doesn’t do it to the extent of what I would do when faced with the pressures of society. The further I travel down this unconventional path that I find myself in – single, reasonably attractive, reasonably intelligent, childless, career-driven, alone but not lonely, finding fulfilment outside of romantic relationships – the more I need heroes like her to tell me that it doesn’t matter so much what the world thinks of me as long as I can still look at the mirror and like what I see.
After all, Erasmus once said: it is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is.
I don’t want this to be post to get too political because my book reviews are really all about me (if anyone has a problem with that, its my blog, so whatever). I don’t really consider myself a feminist mostly because I think the word has become overly used and abused by the woke generation that I fear it has lost its meaning, but also because calling myself one makes me feel like a fraud. I don’t think I can live up to those ideals, and I don’t feel qualified to comment on issues such as equality and fair wages.
I will say, however, that I am grateful to, and will support in my own way, all the women who have fought the battles that needed to be fought so that I can live in a world where I can be whoever I want to be. Even if it’s just by reading, reviewing and highlighting important messages in books like Lessons in Chemistry.
These women have paved the way, so that its now normal that I work in a speciality that used to be male-dominated, and I am able to make opinions and decisions within that speciality that matter and make a difference.
I’m grateful that because of those women I have a voice that’s heard (perhaps too much and too loudly at times) on a regular basis, and that I can be sure that a male colleague on the same Agenda for Change pay scale as I do receives the same amount of wages, and that this isn’t determined by the fact that he has a penis and I have ovaries.
And that’s all I will have to say about that. Back to the book review.
Its tempting to think of this book as a rom-com. It started out as one, and maybe that’s why even as I neared the end I was still hoping for a love story, for Elizabeth to have her happy ending.
Now, how bloody hypocritical and reductive is that sentence?
I, of all people, should know better. I should know more than anyone that your life and happiness isn’t defined by the relationships you have with other people. Haven’t I struggled and spoke out against people who choose to diminish (even if unintentional) what I have done with my life purely because I remain unmarried at 34?
Elizabeth did have her love story. She had a love story with the women whose lives she touched through what other people (men, mostly) thought was just another cooking show. She inspired them to learn, and showed them that they can and should expect more of themselves, and that includes learning chemistry if they want it.
It was a love story with the men and women she formed genuine friendships with, who eventually became part of her unconventional family.
It was a love story with a dog named six-thirty and a little girl named Mad, who are both too intelligent for their own good.
And it was a love story with herself, that starred herself and the dreams that she never gave up on, no matter how hard things got at some point.
In the end, just like Nigella Lawson said in the blurb, I am totally devastated to have finished this. It was such a fun book to read, importing just the right amount of gravitas when it comes to things that matter while still being able to have a laugh and not take itself too seriously.
There should be more books like this, written by women, for women, celebrating women. It’s a privilege to have read it, just like it’s a privilege to be a woman fighting to prove that I have a place in this world.
Men, set the table, the women far too busy putting our own stamp on the world to bother with dinner. Lol