In “Lessons in Chemistry,” a scientist hosts a 1960s cooking show

“Cooking is a serious science. In fact, it’s chemistry. Those words may not sound revolutionary today, but 60 years ago the suggestion that an element of women’s work could be approached with the rigor of a laboratory experiment was truly audacious.

The serious speaker of this truth is thirty-something scientist Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist of Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel “Lessons in Chemistry.” Elizabeth’s surprise platform? The film set of the 1961 hit cooking show “Supper at Six,” of which she is the reluctant host. How Elizabeth lands on camera, rather than in a hood, gets a candid and satisfying treatment in this fast-paced, often funny, sometimes unsettling book shuffle.

Garmus sets its story in Southern California in the 1950s and early 1960s – a time of shirt dresses and seatbeltless cars, “when the great wars were over and the secret wars had just started”. The time, Garmus makes it very clear, was no picnic. For all but the most powerful, it smelt of suffocating conformity, maddening inequality, and dismal expectations. A young woman with a singular passion for science was, as Elizabeth might say, a fish out of H2O.

The path from a chemist who cooks to a cook who exhibits chemistry begins in 1952 at the Hastings Research Institute where Elizabeth works in a crowded laboratory. The situation is far from ideal. She searches for material, gets mistaken for a secretary, and suffers a constant stream of resentment from her jealous, sexist boss.

Elizabeth once had higher professional hopes. Before Hastings, she had been days away from getting her doctorate. in chemistry, when an academic advisor sexually assaulted her, ending those dreams. Although brief, it is a difficult and graphic scene – one of many in the book. Garmus is quick to describe the barriers women faced (and still face today) in academic and professional settings. Walk carefully.

In Hastings, Elizabeth meets the institute’s decorated darling, Calvin Evans. A meticulous and clumsy genius, the young man sputters in Elizabeth’s sensible, caring manner; their suspicious circles, unfiltered fights, and eventual unreserved affection form one of the novel’s central “chemistry lessons”.

Other characters in the book provide opportunities for readers to check biases and feel empathy, and Garmus’ story is awash with them. But Elizabeth – determined, practical, uncompromising – shines brightest. His uniqueness extends beyond his intellectual dynamism; take, for example, his penchant for weaving chemistry terms and equipment into everyday life (coffee is brewed with Bunsen flasks and burners, “Skip the sodium chloride” is uttered at dinner). She tolerates no nonsense in her relationships, expressing raw truths and outspoken opinions without caring about social niceties. She also raises her precocious daughter, Mad, fearlessly, decrying gender norms.

More importantly, Elizabeth refuses to accept boundaries. This refreshing quality appears throughout the book, whether she is learning to row or encouraging a member of the studio audience to pursue a career. This even applies to his pet dog Six-Thirty, a former bomb-sniffing dog now dedicated to protecting his beloved owner and expanding his understanding of English (seriously). In a bubbling book of quirky and distinct characters, Six-Thirty is an out-of-this-world delight.

Several plot points keep the novel’s pace brisk. A mystery about Calvin’s past sweeps over their daughter, Mad, while the tension between Elizabeth’s financial need to host ‘Supper at Six’ and her refusal to conform to the producers’ hidden vision comes to a conclusion. it’s worth it.

The complaints about “Chemistry Lessons” are minimal. The tone of the novel – oscillating between airy, ironic and brutally raw – can seem confusing. Garmus’s commitment to portraying the myriad ways sexism has trivialized and muzzled women may exhaust some readers. “Bloat is called bloat for a reason: it erodes,” she notes. That’s true, but so is the novel’s insistence that we must persist in fueling change in the world.

“Don’t let your talents lie dormant, ladies,” Elizabeth urges her legions of listening “Supper at Six” fans. “Design your own future.” These are words she generously offers – and ultimately claims for herself.