65 pages 2 hours read

Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Lessons in Chemistry (2022) is a best-selling novel by Bonnie Garmus about women’s lives, careers, and struggle for empowerment in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Garmus is a copywriter and creative director who has worked in the fields of technology, medicine, and education. Lessons in Chemistry is her first novel and became a national bestseller upon publication. Through Elizabeth’s story, the book explores issues of sexism in the workplace, the circumscription of women’s ambitions, motherhood, and the meaning of family. This guide is based on the Transworld (Penguin Random House) Kindle edition.

Note: This guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the c-word.

Content Warning: This book and study guide mention suicide, sexual assault, and anti-gay bias.

Plot Summary

In November 1961, a depressed Elizabeth Zott packs her daughter Madeline’s school lunch before heading to work: she is the star of a nationally beloved cooking show, Supper at Six. Supper at Six was born after Elizabeth stormed into the KCTV television studio to complain to Walter Pine that his daughter, Amanda, had been stealing Madeline’s lunches. Stunned by Elizabeth’s intelligence, beauty, and superior cooking skills, Walter suggested the idea of the cooking show to Elizabeth, who reluctantly accepted.

Almost a decade before in January 1952, Elizabeth is a chemist at the Hastings Research Institute. She had once been a doctoral candidate at UCLA, but her acceptance to the program was rescinded after her advisor, Dr. Meyers, sexually assaulted her and she stabbed him with a pencil. At Hastings, she meets Calvin Evans, a fellow scientist at the Institute and a brilliant and renowned chemist, when she steals some beakers from his lab. Calvin initially mistakes her for a secretary but later apologizes and asks her on a date; Elizabeth declines, but they run into each other again a few months later and strike up a friendship. When Donatti, the head of chemistry at Hastings, disallows Elizabeth from continuing her research on abiogenesis, Calvin offers to intervene, and the two begin to work together. They eventually fall in love, and their relationship is envied by all their colleagues.

Over time, Calvin and Elizabeth reveal a little about their respective childhoods to each other: Elizabeth’s father was a religious conman who was eventually imprisoned, after which her mother divorced him and fled to Brazil. Elizabeth’s brother died by suicide after his parents found out about his homosexuality and harassed him for it. Calvin was raised at a boys’ home, after his family died in tragic accidents. Calvin does not reveal to Elizabeth that he had actually been adopted; the man he believes to be his biological father is still alive, a rich man who made huge donations to Calvin’s boys’ home despite having never met his son. Calvin has only told this to one person, an old pen pal named Wakely, who stopped writing to Calvin after the latter confessed that he hates his father and wishes him dead. As Calvin became famous for his work over time, he began receiving letters from people claiming to be long-lost relatives. No letter ever arrived from his father, though one woman wrote to him multiple times, claiming to be his mother and offering Calvin money for his research.

Elizabeth and Calvin move in together. She refuses to marry him, and they decide to never have children, instead adopting an unusually perceptive and intelligent dog, whom they name Six-Thirty. Calvin, who is also a collegiate level rower, teaches Elizabeth how to row, in the process introducing her to Dr. Mason, the captain of the men’s team at the local boathouse.

One morning, when Calvin is out on a run with Six-Thirty, he slips and hits his head on the pavement and dies almost immediately. Elizabeth is devastated by Calvin’s death; furthermore, she discovers that she is pregnant with Calvin’s child. A rich investor had recently showed interest in funding abiogenesis research. Donatti had lied to the investor saying that Elizabeth was a man, “Mr. Zott”, then proceeded to reappropriate the funds meant for Elizabeth’s work. Miss Frask, a secretary at Hastings, spreads the news about Elizabeth’s pregnancy at Hastings; this news threatens to expose Donatti’s scam, and he fires Elizabeth.

After Calvin’s death, Elizabeth spends all her time working or rowing. Her colleagues from Hastings begin to consult with her at home about their work, and Elizabeth charges them for these sessions, earning a living this way. She breaks down the kitchen in her apartment and builds a lab in its place, to continue with her research work. Late in her pregnancy she finally sees Dr. Mason, an obstetrician who is taken aback that Elizabeth is still rowing but encourages her to continue, as it seems to be building strength and endurance. Madeline is born two weeks before her due date. An overwhelmed Elizabeth is helped by her neighbor, Harriet Sloane, who begins to check up on Elizabeth and regularly help with Madeline.

When Madeline turns four, Elizabeth enrolls her in school. Elizabeth returns to Hastings to ask for a job again; Donatti, who is being hounded by the abiogenesis investor, hires Elizabeth back but as a lab technician this time. Elizabeth runs into Frask at Hastings again. A confrontation between the two women leads to the revelation that Frask, too, had been assaulted by her advisor and kicked out of her doctoral program. Donatti enlists the help of another scientist, Dr. Boreywitz, to steal all of Elizabeth’s abiogenesis research, and publish it as his own. Elizabeth quits Hastings in a fury. Frask tries to make amends with Elizabeth by secretly handing over all of Calvin’s notebooks and unfinished work that had been kept in storage at Hastings. In these boxes, Elizabeth discovers all of Calvin’s old correspondences, including the letters from his pen pal Wakely. A couple of days after quitting her job at Hastings, Elizabeth receives a call from Walter Pine, whom she’d confronted at the TV studio, about a potential show. Desperate for an income, Elizabeth accepts his offer.

Walter’s boss, Phil Lebensmal, instructs Walter to make Elizabeth look “sexy” for TV. However, Elizabeth rejects every single wardrobe option, ignores the cue cards Walter writes out for her, and includes scientific instruction and information throughout her demonstrations on the show. Lebensmal is furious, but the show is immensely popular amongst its audience of housewives, who feel seen and respected by Elizabeth.

Harriet reveals to Madeline that Calvin had a “fairy godmother”, the donor at the boys’ home, which Harriet knows from having snooped around Calvin’s mail years earlier. Madeline visits the library to find out more about the home and runs into Wakely, who is now a reverend. Wakely discovers that Madeline is Calvin Evans’ daughter and helps her track down the right home, offering to call them on her behalf. The bishop attempts to avoid Wakely’s call because of the trouble that Calvin Evans has caused him in the past; years ago, when a rich man arrived looking for Calvin Evans, the bishop lied that Calvin was dead in order to secure funding. Calvin eventually became famous and the Foundation discovered the bishop’s lie, and outraged, immediately stopped funding the home. When Wakely finally manages to get through to the bishop, the latter inadvertently discloses details about the Parker Foundation to Wakely, which he in turn passes on to Madeline.

Elizabeth insults a potential sponsor on an episode of the cooking show. A furious Lebensmal summons her alone to his office and attempts to sexually assault her, but Elizabeth pulls out her chef’s knife and Lebensmal has a heart attack instead. Elizabeth discovers that the show has multiple new sponsorship and syndication offers, and when Walter becomes acting executive producer he secures new, immensely profitable deals for the show.

Elizabeth is approached by Life magazine for an interview and reluctantly accepts on Harriet and Walter’s persuasion. She ends up revealing everything about her past to Franklin Roth, the reporter; Roth nevertheless pens an article focusing on Elizabeth’s scientific accomplishments, with no reference to any personal details. However, Roth’s editor runs an entirely different article using quotes from Donatti and Meyers, which makes Elizabeth out to be an attractive but otherwise unaccomplished woman. Elizabeth feels betrayed and sinks into a depression. Roth quits Life magazine and tries to publish his original article in scientific magazines but is rejected from multiple publications. He sends the article over to Elizabeth; Madeline receives and reads it instead and takes it to Wakely; she meets Frask, who is now working as Wakely’s typist. Frask reads Roth’s new article and, incensed on Elizabeth’s behalf, sends a letter to the editors of Life denouncing the piece they have run. Her letter is run in the next edition of Life, along with those of many others.

A conversation with Wakely leads Elizabeth to realize that she wants to get back to scientific work, and she quits the show. She receives no job offers, but months later, Frask calls her and asks her to come into Hastings. The Parker Foundation, who had been behind the funding for abiogenesis, had seen Frask’s letter in Life, and gone on to make investigations about Donatti. Upon discovering his many misdeeds, Frask is made head of personnel, Donatti is fired, and Elizabeth is offered a position as the head of chemistry. Avery Parker, the woman behind the Parker Foundation, reveals that she is Calvin’s biological mother; having gotten pregnant as an unwed teenager, she had been forced to give Calvin up for adoption. Her lawyer, Wilson, is the one whom Calvin had seen at the home, sent on her behalf after Calvin’s adoptive family passed away. When Avery later discovered the bishop had lied about Calvin being dead, she began to write to her son. Before she could meet with Calvin, he had passed away. Avery wants to meet Madeline and be a part of the family, and Elizabeth warmly invites her home for supper. The book ends with Elizabeth resuming her abiogenesis research in her lab at Hastings.