Beneath its pink cover, 'Lessons in Chemistry' offers a story about power

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Beneath its pink cover, 'Lessons in Chemistry' offers a story about power
Bonnie Garmus in New York, Nov. 3, 2022. The best-selling debut author created Elizabeth Zott, a chemist battling a sexist 1950s establishment, as the role model she craved — and found that readers wanted the same. (Frances F. Denny/The New York Times)

by Sadie Stein



NEW YORK, NY.- There’s a scene early on in Bonnie Garmus’ novel “Lessons in Chemistry” in which Elizabeth Zott, a redoubtable chemist thwarted at every turn by a hidebound 1950s establishment, is given career advice by a male colleague: “Don’t work the system. Outsmart it.” Zott, for her part, “didn’t like the notion that systems had to be outsmarted. Why couldn’t they just be smart in the first place?”

The ascent of “Lessons in Chemistry” — a book whose success is the stuff publishing dreams are made of — begs the same question.

The U.S. edition, with its bubble gum-pink cover bearing a stylized woman’s face peering over a pair of cat-eye sunglasses, reads as overtly feminine, a light beach read for a day off. One can, of course, read any number of things at the beach. But some readers, at least, have been surprised to open it and find the story of Zott, a brilliant woman whose fetching chignon is secured by a sharp No. 2 pencil also intended to ward off sexual assault.

Although she’s not interested in celebrity, Zott becomes the face of a cooking show through which she educates her viewers in chemistry, self-worth and agency. Ultimately, she triumphs through hard work and pragmatism, and by using the media available to women of her era to new ends. It is hard not to read “Lessons in Chemistry” and wonder if Zott’s creator has achieved something similarly subversive, offering readers more substance than some, at least, expected — and changing their lives in the process.

Aiming the novel at a female readership is “a bit pigeonholing,” said James Daunt, the CEO of Barnes & Noble. But ultimately, he added, “the book has dominated the cover.”

In its brief life — “Lessons in Chemistry” was released in April, in the United States and Britain, by Doubleday — the book has become an international success, with six months on bestseller lists in the United States and rights sold in 40 countries. Last week it was named Barnes & Noble’s book of the year, and this week, one of Amazon’s top 20 books of the year. There is a series in production on Apple TV+, starring and executive-produced by Brie Larsen. It is on track to be the bestselling debut novel of 2022.

The dissonance between the implicit promise of the book’s American cover and its contents — besides its serious themes, the book contains a good deal of rowing, to say nothing of the sections narrated by the family dog, Six-Thirty — has meant Garmus has, at times, had to answer questions from readers. The covers in other markets (primary colors in Britain, sober in Germany, surreal in Estonia) paint a different picture.

Despite its candy shell, the book is “not sweet,” the elegant and soft-spoken Garmus, 65, said in an interview during a whirlwind November trip to New York from London, where she lives with her husband.

She has received “hate mail” from a few indignant readers who expected something different, she recalled, laughing. “They were like, ‘You’re the worst romance novelist ever!’”

On its face, “Lessons in Chemistry” might look like an overnight success story: A career copywriter experiences some “garden variety misogyny” one day at work, takes her anger out on the page and catches the eye of an agent, who offers representation on the strength of three chapters. The book goes to auction; bidding wars ensue; the novel comes out and surpasses expectations.

“I sent it out on a Tuesday,” Garmus’ agent in Britain, Felicity Blunt, said of the manuscript, “and by Wednesday morning I was getting emails that were coming in faster, faster, faster.” Blunt had to forbid Garmus from stress-exercising on her rowing machine — a habit the author shares with her main character — so that she could be reached.

In fact, it all took a great deal of work. “Part of the reality behind the myth of an overnight success,” said Garmus’ American agent, Jennifer Joel, “is that most people have actually been toiling, laboriously and diligently, in an unseen way, for years.”

Garmus had endured nearly 100 rejections of prior projects. Blunt, who worked with Garmus to massage the manuscript and gave the title a crucial tweak — it was originally called “Introduction to Chemistry” — to broaden its reach, credits Garmus’ many years as a copywriter for the precision of her prose and her ability to work collaboratively.

“She had gone over each of those lines,” Blunt said, “but you couldn’t see the cracks because it hadn’t been overworked.”



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Many of those involved in the process, from agents to her editor, Lee Boudreaux, to the booksellers who’ve enthusiastically hand-sold copies across the country, expressed a similar reaction: They immediately wanted to share the book with people they knew. For Boudreaux, it was with her mother-in-law; for Daunt, the Barnes & Noble CEO, it was with his daughters. “So many people say, ‘I gave it to my mother, my husband, my children’ — it’s a book for everyone,” said Todd Doughty, senior vice president of publicity and communications at Knopf Doubleday.

Garmus spent the bulk of her childhood in Riverside, California, before her father’s work as an entomologist took the family overseas. Before becoming a homemaker, her mother had been a nurse. “I hadn’t really appreciated how many limits had been imposed on that generation until I started doing the research,” Garmus said, describing how she became aware of what it meant to women, “giving up your career, and then being called average all the time.”

Garmus is adamant that the uncompromising Zott — glamorous, tough, relentlessly logical — is not based on any one person, but said that the book is something of “a love letter to scientists and the scientific brain.” She never wanted to be a scientist herself, she said, but worked for a few years at a science textbook company, and “admired the fact that they were going after this world that we hadn’t yet understood.” Garmus’ husband is a scientist, as well.

The title also communicates the author’s genuine enthusiasm for pedagogy. “We should treat science education like we do reading,” she said, and “have kids experimenting and failing at an early age and getting used to getting past failure.”

For this novel, Garmus learned chemistry from a 1950s text written several years before the novel’s setting, to avoid anachronisms. “Bonnie has such integrity,” Blunt said, “and absolute discipline and very high standards. She’s happy to own that. She’s right, without embarrassment.”

While there’s an element of luck to any such commercial triumph, the timing seems to have been crucial to this one. Whether it’s the book’s characters, its messaging or the escape to a time when the feminist discussion was less fraught, readers are hungry for it.

“Look, there have been a lot of hard things about our lives these past couple of years,” Joel said. “And the little bit of escapism that comes from walking around in somebody else’s shoes for a little while and seeing them rise and overcome and sort of get justice and find happiness … Perhaps we could use more of it.”

As Garmus puts it, she wrote the character she needed. “I felt like I was writing my own role model, and so she came easily.”

Based on the letters Garmus receives, “Lessons in Chemistry” has struck a chord with a wide swath of readers, although the American cover might have scared off a few men. Garmus recalls talking to an all-male book group whose members were initially dissuaded by the novel’s Jordan-almond palette.

“But as I’m fond of saying,” Garmus said, “the book isn’t anti-men, it’s anti-sexism.”

The irony, as some readers have pointed out to Garmus, is that Zott would have hated being portrayed looking coyly flirtatious. Ultimately, Garmus said, “I think you have to listen to your publisher, and they have a lot of experience.”

“Lessons in Chemistry” is a book that defies easy categorization and which, depending on which of its suitors had won, or which direction the winning house had decided to take, might have gone a number of ways. For the same reason, it appeals to a range of readers. And whether because of the cover or in spite of it, the book hit its mark; sales are off the charts. Even the kind of rowing machine Zott uses has seen a spike in sales. And the book is now being added to syllabuses: One high-school teacher, says Garmus, is making her students read “Lessons in Chemistry” for a class on the American dream.

What surprised Garmus the most about the book’s success, she said, has been readers’ reports of how “Lessons in Chemistry” spurred them to change their lives.

“People have quit their jobs and gone back to school or people have gotten divorced because they recognize themselves,” Garmus said. “Sometimes I want to say, ‘You know it’s fiction, right?’ But on the other hand, it was what I was trying to get across. You can really do what you need to do. You just have to dig in really hard and not expect it to be very easy.”

Zott is a catalyst, she adds. “She’s actively breaking and creating new bonds. And that is chemistry at its most basic.” And the U.S. paperback’s cover, she said, will “look different.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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