April Book Group Discussion Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

SarasaSarasa All Saints Host
April's Book Group choice is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This was one of those books that everywhere I turned last year people were discussing it either in the press or in real life. It's a very enjoyable book about chemistry, cookery and the perceived place of women in the world of the 1950s. There is also an Apple TV mini-series, which is very enjoyable but doesn't follow the plot of the book that closely. Well worth looking at if you have access to Apple TV though.
I'll post some questions on or around the 20th.

Comments

  • Oh great...one of the best books I read last year. Have also seen the mini series and I thought it was fairly faithful to at least the spirit of the book...maybe had less detail and a speeded up timeline though perhaps.
  • Tree BeeTree Bee Shipmate
    Just read this (for the second time) for my RL book group so I’ll keep an eye on this thread.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I have a copy on hold at the library. Says about 5 weeks wait, but there are lots of copies so hope to get it earlier or see if someone I know can lend me a copy
  • NenyaNenya All Saints Host, Ecclesiantics & MW Host
    My real life book group is also reading this one in April, so I'll be joining in the discussion when it starts.
  • I enjoyed this book. I read it twice, which is unusual for me. I did start liking it best about one-third of the way in. My book group had very different opinions on this book. Some loved it a few hated it and stopped reading before the end.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    My library says "several months' wait" so it's unlikely I'll be able to read it in time to join in. It's a book I've heard a lot of comment about, both positive and negative, so even if I don't get the book in time I'll follow the discussion with interest!
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    I have yet to be able to source a copy.
  • SarasaSarasa All Saints Host
    Well it's the 20th so here are some questions. Feel free to add your own.

    1. Was the book what you expected from the title and cover?
    2. Did you enjoy the way Elizabeth and Calvin got together? How do you think their relationship would have developed if they had had more time together?
    3. What did you think of the character of six-thirty? Annoying, a good plot device, cute or something else?
    4. A lot of the plot hinges around the blatant sexism of the time. Was this an over the top portrayal or an accurate one? Do you think things have improved in the last few years or are they starting to go backwards?
    5. Any favourite scenes or characters?
    6. If you have seen the Apple mini-series what did you think to the changes they made to the plot and did you enjoy it.
    7. Any thing else you'd like to add?


    Looking forward to the discussion.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I'm still waiting on a copy from the library, but am now 15th in line with 13 copies in circulation. I plan to read the book late and add to the discussion, possible at the start of May, but will read everyone else's input in the meantime (I don't mind spoilers).
  • NenyaNenya All Saints Host, Ecclesiantics & MW Host
    Was the book what you expected from the title and cover?
    Several friends had recommended it to me and told me what it was about long before I saw a copy of the book. There are, I think, two different covers. The one I had showed a headless woman in a full-skirted dress holding a TV set; that pretty much described it. One of the blurbs on that cover said something like it "sparked joy on every page" - I can't say I agreed with that. There were some pretty horrific scenes.

    Did you enjoy the way Elizabeth and Calvin got together? How do you think their relationship would have developed if they had had more time together?

    Well, it was certainly memorable! I've never before heard - in fiction or real life - of a couple ending up together because one of them threw up on the other on their first meeting. I've no idea how their relationship would have developed if they'd had more time together... my imagination didn't stretch that far and, frankly, I am not interested enough in either of them to want to speculate.

    What did you think of the character of six-thirty? Annoying, a good plot device, cute or something else?

    All of the above. It's the one thing everyone mentions when you talk about the book. I thought he was quite cute; a level of willing suspension of disbelief required to accept that he could talk to unborn babies and dead people. However, I believe dog owners do sometimes attribute these supernatural abilities to their pets and who am I to say one way or the other? There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

    A lot of the plot hinges around the blatant sexism of the time. Was this an over the top portrayal or an accurate one? Do you think things have improved in the last few years or are they starting to go backwards?

    I can't really comment on the accuracy or over-the-topness. I never came across sexism in the workplace as grim as that, but I did work in publishing in the 80s and the only way to get very far as a female was to start as a secretary and the more decorative ones generally seemed to experience more meteoric rises to power.

    Any favourite scenes or characters?

    No real favourites - most of the characters at some point or another irritated me (honestly, who on earth really asks someone at table to pass the sodium chloride rather than the salt?) - but one of the memorable ones is when Elizabeth is describing very matter-of-factly to another man (whose name eludes me) her sex life with Calvin (they did it practically every day, which was to be expected given their age and level of health at the time, apparently) and how she would sometimes wake in the night "filled with desire" and hesitated to wake Calvin because he was in REM sleep.

    If you have seen the Apple mini-series what did you think to the changes they made to the plot and did you enjoy it.

    I haven't seen it.

    Any thing else you'd like to add?

    It was an ok read; I have to say I was a bit disappointed given the hype I'd heard. So many people had said how brilliant it was. I didn't particularly take to any of the characters. I realised how I felt about it shortly after reading when I spotted a copy in a charity shop and very definitely didn't want to buy it. I don't want to own it, lend it out or read it again.

    I'll be interested in other people's comments. My real life book group all enjoyed it (one of them is a chemist) but no one was completely wowed.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Still waiting for a copy from library.
  • Tree BeeTree Bee Shipmate

    1. Was the book what you expected from the title and cover?

    I had no expectations, apart from having read positive reviews. I must say my copy is a thing of beauty, with a colourful periodic table on the end papers and page edges.

    2. Did you enjoy the way Elizabeth and Calvin got together? How do you think their relationship would have developed if they had had more time together?

    It was satisfying that after being isolated in her professional and personal life, Elizabeth found such a fulfilling relationship. Calvin’s death was a shock to me; there was so much left to read!

    3. What did you think of the character of six-thirty? Annoying, a good plot device, cute or something else?

    Six - thirty had his plot uses, eg sniffing out the dynamite. Otherwise he was an irritation. Just why?

    4. A lot of the plot hinges around the blatant sexism of the time. Was this an over the top portrayal or an accurate one? Do you think things have improved in the last few years or are they starting to go backwards?

    Having worked in a female dominated profession a few decades later, I don’t have the experience to comment. But the sexism Elizabeth had to deal with in the novel felt believable while I was reading it.

    5. Any favourite scenes or characters?

    I liked the character of Mad Gott. Loved her name too, though the way she was given her name stretched credulity.

    6. If you have seen the Apple mini-series what did you think to the changes they made to the plot and did you enjoy it.

    Haven’t been able to see it though I’d like to.

    7. Any thing else you'd like to add?

    My RL book group recently read this. I was the only one who had enjoyed it. The others had opinions similar to Nenya’s. This was my second reading, which was better than the first. I’m enjoying re-reading books recently, don’t know what that says about me!
  • SarasaSarasa All Saints Host
    Thank you for all your comments to far, keep them coming. I'm either busy or away for most of the next week, so will post my comments when I return.
  • I read the book last year and haven't had the time to re-read so this is based on memories and the following review which w I wrote for Goodreads at the time:

    'This is very hard to categorise, but I enjoyed it very much. Especially the super intelligent dog. Elizabeth reminds me of a Mary Poppins type character in a way - someone from outside the mainstream culture, but who can astound and amaze people with her abilities and insights. She was like a 21st century woman living in the early 60s. There were far too many coincidences for it to be 'believable' in any way, but that didn't matter, its was a great read.'

    So yes I loved Six Thirty. And the daughter who's name I've forgotten. She was probably my favourite character.

    I suspect the sexism was fairly realistic, maybe a little exaggerated for effect.

    I did watch the Apple mini series later last year, and enjoyed it. I felt it was fairly faithful to the book, in spirit at least, but I do not recall specific details about where it may have differed. I think there was maybe less rowing and more organised protest about a new road or something similar...but these are hazy reflections!

  • I read the book last year, so will add paartial comments:

    2. Did you enjoy the way Elizabeth and Calvin got together? How do you think their relationship would have developed if they had had more time together?

    Forced and unbelieveable, but it was also part of the belief suspension needed for the book. Calvins background was another. They were obvious plot devices, but I wasn't too bothered by them. I occasionally like Cosy stories, and it was all more believable than some episodes of Rosemary and Thyme, for example.

    4. A lot of the plot hinges around the blatant sexism of the time. Was this an over the top portrayal or an accurate one? Do you think things have improved in the last few years or are they starting to go backwards?


    I think it was totally accurate in many places for the time. I was a bit later into the world, but there was still a lot of sexism about in many work places even 15-20 years later.

    Many places are a whole lot better these days. Some are not. Some - especially those places where power is so critical - are worse.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I finally got my online copy from the library and it's Anzac Day public holiday today so I can start reading now.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate


    1. Was the book what you expected from the title and cover?

    I’d heard a fair bit about the book already, so wasn’t surprised.

    2. Did you enjoy the way Elizabeth and Calvin got together? How do you think their relationship would have developed if they had had more time together?
    I found their relationship touching but believable – they did seem to be soul-mates, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else being so close to Elizabeth. As a plot device I can see why Calvin had to be killed off – but it was sad.

    3. What did you think of the character of six-thirty? Annoying, a good plot device, cute or something else?
    I’m not usually keen on animals in major roles in novels, but I found Six-Thirty rather amusing.

    4. A lot of the plot hinges around the blatant sexism of the time. Was this an over-the-top portrayal or an accurate one? Do you think things have improved in the last few years or are they starting to go backwards?
    From my mother’s stories of employment in the 1940s and 50s, I don’t think it was over-the-top; women had to resign on marriage from many jobs, and certainly on having a child. The end of WW2 and the return of servicemen certainly put paid to most of the gains made by women during the war. The sexism was probably more implicit than obvious – assumptions about what jobs women could/should do, how likely they were to get promotions - though it could extend to harassment. I was fortunate going into a professional job in the 1970s to be employed in a workplace (secondary school) which had fairly even numbers of men and women and which did not have lots of ‘traditions’, since it was new school. I don’t think I realised at the time that the relative lack of sexism I experienced then was by no means the norm; I found worse in the 2000s in academia.
    Looking at my daughters’ careers I haven’t seen things going backwards in regards sexism – policies have become much more family-friendly. The main problems for young people are to do with insecure work, low pay, part-time and contract work – and these affect both men and women. But sexism hasn’t disappeared.

    6. If you have seen the Apple mini-series what did you think to the changes they made to the plot and did you enjoy it.
    Haven’t seen it, and unlikely to do so.

    7. Anything else you'd like to add?
    I mainly read it in hospital waiting rooms; as such it was light enough to be enjoyable, and I wasn’t too worried by the implausibilities. In one waiting someone else was reading, and we got into a chat about it. I'm glad I've read it
  • MiliMili Shipmate


    1. Was the book what you expected from the title and cover?

    My ebook had the cover with four coloured corners and a headless woman holding a T.V. It gave me the impression that Elizabeth would enjoy hosting the cooking show and that would be the main theme of the book although she might do some serious chemistry too.

    2. Did you enjoy the way Elizabeth and Calvin got together? How do you think their relationship would have developed if they had had more time together?

    I enjoyed the story of how they got together. They seemed very much in love and I think Calvin would have been a good father to Mad too, but he also seemed quite pushy about getting married and going behind Elizabeth's back to try to further her career. He also pushed her into rowing, which she did end up enjoying, but seemed a bit controlling. Calvin seemed to be the only person who she didn't always stand up against when he went against her will.

    3. What did you think of the character of six-thirty? Annoying, a good plot device, cute or something else?

    I liked six-thirty. He was definitely the most likeable character. Sometimes I found the book a bit disjointed as it went from very serious and at times upsetting to lighthearted and whimsical with coincidences and fantasy elements. Six-thirty was part of the whimsy.

    4. A lot of the plot hinges around the blatant sexism of the time. Was this an over the top portrayal or an accurate one? Do you think things have improved in the last few years or are they starting to go backwards?

    At the time wealthier white women and a minority of non-white women were becoming better educated and had more professional opportunities than the past, but there was still a lot of blatant sexism and even more women would be affected by unconscious biases and stereotypes, even in workplaces that may have been more open to promoting women to higher roles. Things have improved a lot and exceptionally talented female scientists, particularly those who do not take time out to have children can rise to the top of the profession, but there are still barriers due to stereotypes, the challenges of child rearing that still affect women more than men and the affect on career progression and some blatant sexism and sexual harassment still remaining. This article is long, but gives a great overview of women in science in Australia from the late 19th century until around ten years ago https://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0455b.htm#:~:text=From 1912, research opportunities came,zoology, geology and organic chemistry.

    The only woman in my family who I know was linked to science around the time was written was my Great Grandmother's cousin Hazel Foletta, later Hazel Jenkin and finally Lady Hazel Burnet after she married the Nobel Prize winning scientist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. I knew of her as a famous singer, but after her daughter Heather Jenkin died, who I just found out was a graduate science student at Melbourne University, she funded a library in her daughter's name at the University and worked there as honorary librarian, which is how she met her famous husband. One source I found said she also assisted Burnet in his writing of his later books. I found this article about her from 1965 (11 years before she married Burnet) which ironically was on the women's pages of the newspaper among the recipes. The recipes also contain canned soup which would have horrified Elizabeth Zott!

    Anyway, if you were wealthy enough to fund a university library and helped your first husband found a major political party as also discussed in the article (at least the Liberal Party was more progressive and inclusive of women for the time back then but I was still almost crying that a relative helped found them) you could have some influence as a woman. https://www.newspapers.com/image/122113170/?clipping_id=33939148&fcfToken=eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJmcmVlLXZpZXctaWQiOjEyMjExMzE3MCwiaWF0IjoxNzE0Mzg0NTU4LCJleHAiOjE3MTQ0NzA5NTh9.eAAbshD_0naxSSop2MiLSm7q-0izxh0fSJT85066sL4


    5. Any favourite scenes or characters?
    I liked when Six-thirty saved Elizabeth and the T.V. studio from the bomb. I also liked Walter and Harriet's relationship development.

    6. If you have seen the Apple mini-series what did you think to the changes they made to the plot and did you enjoy it.

    I haven't seen it but just saw the photos of the cast and was surprised that Harriet and her husband were cast as African American. It seems a bit stereotypical to make the only African American characters the character who provides Elizabeth with childcare and her awful husband. Perhaps Wakely would have been a better choice if they wanted a more diverse cast than the book seemed to have. They have also made Flaske thin and Calvin good looking which I thought was unnecessary. Even Six-thirty has a had a makeover from ugliness to cuddly and cute.




  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    I finally able to get a copy yesterday. I am ignoring other's answers for now.
  • SarasaSarasa All Saints Host
    I haven't managed a complete re-read, as I decided as much as I enjoyed the book it wasn't one I wanted to revisit, at least not yet, so some of my answers might be a bit vague.

    1. Was the book what you expected from the title and cover?
    It wasn't quite what I was expecting, I think it was going to be more of a rom-com and certainly at first it appeared that way.

    2. Did you enjoy the way Elizabeth and Calvin got together? How do you think their relationship would have developed if they had had more time together?
    This was one of the few books where I didn't want to read what was going to happen next as I knew something bad was around the corner. I thought it was six-thirty that was going to die, that Elizabeth and Calvin would break up because of it, and finally get together at the end of the book.

    3. What did you think of the character of six-thirty? Annoying, a good plot device, cute or something else?
    I liked him as a character and thought the book would have been less interesting without him.

    4. A lot of the plot hinges around the blatant sexism of the time. Was this an over the top portrayal or an accurate one? Do you think things have improved in the last few years or are they starting to go backwards?
    I think that a lot of the sexism of the time was accepted by women as just the way things were. Certainly looking back at some of my favourite songs of the late sixties and early seventies I can see now how misogynistic they really were. I never encountered much direct sexism maybe because my career was in librarianship, where the vast majority of people I came across at all levels were women. The only time I remember being seriously annoyed was when a county councillor said that we charming, pretty ladies would be ideal for selling the idea of the big cuts that were coming to the library service. That remark did not go down well.

    5. Any favourite scenes or characters?
    I liked the whole becoming an unintentional star of day TV strand, specially the way that empowered women to start thinking about what else they could do.

    6. If you have seen the Apple mini-series what did you think to the changes they made to the plot and did you enjoy it..
    I really enjoyed the series, the character of Harriet may have been black but she was also a lawyer trying to win a case against the corrupt local authority who wanted to drive a road through the neighbourhood. She becomes a good friend and big support to Elizabeth and Mad. Wakely was also black so the casting was a lot more diverse. However it seemed to run out of steam at the end, or maybe there is going to be a series two.

    7. Any thing else you'd like to add?
    My son, who is a chemist, also enjoyed the book and he said he'd read somewhere that the book was originally going to be far more about Mad than it actually was. I wonder what the story would have been like from her point of view.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    Interesting to hear the TV series made big changes to the Harriet character and her storyline.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    About 50 pages in an loving it.
  • TukaiTukai Shipmate
    I'm a bit late responding since I have been recovering (more-or-less) from a serious problem in January. But I had already read the book not long before I was ill, so I would like to add a few belated comments. Perhaps I can add a few points from my different as a [male] research scientist starting in the 1970s.

    I worked in a variety of physical and mathematical science areas, both of which were very male dominated.. In many of the institutes I worked in either Australia or Britain, at that stage automatically forced women to resign at senior professional level as soon as they married. This was probably similarly the case in much of the USA, or worse like the character Elizabeth. As a sideline, I also appeared in a couple of television shows - though only for a few days each. At that time, the female show appearances almost all featured as pretty-looking "dolly birds".

    In short, the background issues of this book had serious underlying issues in them, though of course the book was exaggerated for some effect, for example to show the brilliance of the woman's daughter, her dog, and seriousness of her own part (but not the presenter's) of the TV show.

    All those effects played to me as very readable and amusing, to the extent that I read the book lapping it up to the extent I read it through for only a couple of days.

  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate, Host Emeritus
    Good to see you posting here again, @Tukai, I've missed your comments.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    Yes, good to see you back Tukai and I hope you are doing better health-wise.
  • SarasaSarasa All Saints Host
    Good to 'see' you @Tukai, you've been missed.
    I think your comments about the book are spot on. I've just checked to see if she's written anything else, as I wondered if Lessons in Chemistry is her usual style. It turns out it is her first book and she hasn't published anything else yet. I'll be looking out for her next one.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Finished it this afternoon.

    1. Was the book what you expected from the title and cover?

    The cover probably made it look like more of a traditional romance novel.

    2. Did you enjoy the way Elizabeth and Calvin got together? How do you think their relationship would have developed if they had had more time together?

    I think they would have developed into a comfortable, older couple. They may have gone on to develop some great scientific findings.

    3. What did you think of the character of six-thirty? Annoying, a good plot device, cute or something else?

    I loved six-thirty. It was wonderful to have a canine pov of the humans in the novel.

    4. A lot of the plot hinges around the blatant sexism of the time. Was this an over the top portrayal or an accurate one? Do you think things have improved in the last few years or are they starting to go backwards?

    To the best of my understanding, the blatant sexism is a fair reflection of that day and age. As a male, I probably defer to those who experience sexism when it comes to the second question.

    5. Any favourite scenes or characters?
    I loved the end of the heart attack scene and the scene where Elizabeth mean’s Calvin’s mother.

    6. If you have seen the Apple mini-series what did you think to the changes they made to the plot and did you enjoy it.
    Not watched.

    7. Any thing else you'd like to add?
    A book club at work is doing Lessons in Chemistry for our next read.
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