Lessons in Chemistry a Delightful Feminist Fantasy



By Bonnie Garmus

Doubleday, 386 pages





Lessons in Chemistry is the delightful debut of novelist Bonnie Garmus. At heart it’s a feminist fantasy, but an unorthodox one. It’s hysterical in places, poignant in others, and anchored by Elizabeth Zott, whose stubbornness, opinionated ways, and uncompromising behavior are her greatest strength and greatest weakness.


It really is about chemistry, both the laboratory and interpersonal varieties. It is set in the 1950s and early 1960s, when “hard” subjects such as science are the preserve of men. Women, it was assumed, were unfit for such fields. Elizabeth’s problem is that “I’m a chemist” is her personal mantra. She has had the misfortune of being victimized by those whose moral compass is akin to a fuel gauge pointing toward E. Her parents were hucksters, she was sexually assaulted by her academic advisor, and never finished her degree. In the eyes of most she’s not a real chemist, though some realize she is brilliant and can’t wait to steal her research.


Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs. You might continue to think that when she lands a job at the otherwise all-male Hastings Research Institute lab headed by the sleazy Dr. Donatti who pays her a fraction of what others are making, including some of the female support staff. Zott doesn’t do herself any favors, though. She has few filters, a barbed tongue, and backs down to no one. Donatti would be happy to cherry-pick her notes and get rid of her except for a major complication: Calvin Evans.


Evans has also been kicked around, including being raised in a Catholic orphanage in Iowa headed by a priest who is Donatti’s equal on the reprehensibility scale. Evans grows up tall, gawky, and geeky—perfect chemistry material. He too lands at Hastings, allegedly because its California location was good for his one non-Bunsen burner passion: rowing. Make that two. After a few comic misfires, he’s in love with the beautiful Elizabeth. She reciprocates because, in her words, he was “the first man to take me seriously.” Calvin knows what Donatti refuses to see; Zott is the smartest thing in the lab and that might include him, though he is a perennial Nobel Prize nominee. If Donatti wants to keep Evans, who is routinely courted by Harvard and others, Zott is part of the package.


Elizabeth comments, “Calvin and I were soulmates.” Label them socially transgressive ones. He’d love to marry her, but she wants no part of that institution, though she’s happy to live with him and enjoy a carnal relationship. In the 1950s, that’s practically an un-American breach of morality. Like Elizabeth cares. At some point she and Calvin acquire a stray mutt they name Six-Thirty and Zott begins to keep track of the number of words he knows. The pooch will become a major character in his own right. Elizabeth also obtains a daughter, Mad, under less-than-ideal circumstances and raises her to be as forceful and bold as she. Mad’s encounters with her less-intelligent kindergarten teacher are side-splitting.


Mad is often called Madeline, but her given name really is Mad. There’s an amusing backstory to that as well, but even wackier is the avenue through which Elizabeth gains credibility. At some point, Donatti manages to jettison Elizabeth. Because she needs the money, Zott is convinced to try her hand at a cooking show, on her own terms of course. She has the right look, but she’s a serious as a preacher, refuses to go girly on the air, and insists that her cooking show be about chemistry! When she cooks, she adds NaCl, not salt, and speaks of how it helps build covalent bonds. Against all odds, the show is a smash hit and now it’s the station head who wants her gone. Why? Because she also tells women that they are exploited and voices her opinions on whatever she deems logical, no matter who is shocked by it. The past and the present will collide in what passes for a happy ending in this offbeat novel. I shall say only that Zott’s ever-present yellow pencil is outdone by a pen and several women whose pluck rivals Elizabeth’s.   


I emphasize that this is fiction, not a tale “based on a true story,” as that hackneyed phrase goes. Call it the history that should have been and is only believable because of social changes that subsequently occurred. If you prefer, though, you can just surrender to the fantasy, enjoys some laughs, and revel in characters who punch above their weight class and win.


Rob Weir


The Lady Vanishes Saved by Oddball Characters



Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, 97 minutes, Not-rated

In English, French, Italian, and German (with subtitles)




The Lady Vanishes is a mixture of film noir, drama, and eccentric British humor, though as Alfred Hitchcock films go, it doesn’t stand up as one of his stellar efforts. It opens in a made-up location analogous to a Swiss or French Alpine ski resort town. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) hopes to return to England to get married, but an avalanche forces everyone on the coast-bound train to depart and spend the night at a hotel. The usual confusion and jockeying ensues over who gets rooms and of what level of comfort. Iris has a small set-to with an ethnomusicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave).


Note the date: 1938. This is a time in which much Europe is already at war or about to be. You’d not know there was anything wrong by listening to Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), two older British bachelors whose main concern is that they might not get back to England in time to catch the end of a big cricket test match. By the next day the snow is cleared from the rails, but as people prepare to board, a flower planter plonks Iris on the head. She is helped onto the train by Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an older woman. Later she has tea with Froy then retires to her compartment to sleep. When she awakes, Froy is nowhere to be found. She queries everyone she met the night before, including lawyer Eric Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and his mistress who is passing herself off as his wife. No one recalls having seen Froy on the train. Everyone, except for Charters and Caldicott, think the blow to the head has made Iris imagine things.


There’s your mystery: Where is Miss Froy? Things get a bit more odd when the Germanic Doctor Hartz (Paul Lukas, who was actually Hungarian) boards with a heavily bandaged patient being tended by a deaf-mute nun who looks like Froy and whom Todhunter’s mistress insists is she. There’s a knife-wielding Italian magician and enough intrigue to keep viewers guessing. Are we seeing some sort of Nazi plot? A game of spy-versus-spy? An international incident in the making? Lots of people who aren’t who they are pretending to be? A switcheroo? Is Iris really potty, or was the flowerpot that crowned her not an accident? Why iwas a non-skiing ethnomusicologist doing at the resort? The only constant is that Charters and Caldicott are really worried about missing the cricket match. (Speaking of batty!)


Radford and Wayne must have had a blast playing Charters and Caldicott. They are like Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern crossed with Detective Clouseau and a pair of upper-class twits from a Monty Python sketch. In many ways, they are the best thing in the film, the latter an occasionally awkward mélange of mystery, beat-the-clock drama, tension, and peculiar characters. I suspect it was no accident that some of the film’s devices are reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which was published four years earlier. To be sure there are classic Hitchcock devices–suspense, point of view shots, skewed camera angles, subtle class commentary–but it’s not very hard to figure out where things are headed.


The Lady Vanishes is often classified as a thriller and is often said to be one of Hitchcock’s best films, but it’s no North by Northwest or Psycho. Take the diverting oddity of Charters and Caldicott from the film and you’d be left with a drama quite a lot like others from the World War II era. That means you’d still have a decent way to spend an hour and a half, but you’d probably not wear out a thesaurus searching for superlatives. Luckily, Charters and Caldicott are there. As I often say, the English are unrivaled when it comes to oddballs. Charters and Caldicott make unraveling the mystery fun and the grit and pluck of the movie’s revelations more stiff upper lip believable.


Rob Weir


Demon Copperhead Lacks Dickens' Redemption



By Barbara Kingsolver

Harper, 546 pages.                                         




Demon Copperhead, the new novel from Barbara Kingsolver, reveals several things. First, Ms. Kingsolver can really write, but we know that. Second, she can spin a story chocked full of characters. We know that too. Third, she’s a big fan of Dickens, which maybe you didn’t know. Fourth, she’s no Charles Dickens.


Kingsolver was raised in Kentucky, but now lives in Virginia, which is where Demon Copperhead is set, the Goochland area of Lee County to be exact. It’s rural and there are namesake reptiles around, but the title references protagonist and narrator Damon Fields. Many of the characters go by handles that riff off their birthnames, hence Damon is “Demon” and “Copperhead" his red hair. Kingsolver’s novel is an adaptation of David Copperfield refashioned as crises in the contemporary Southern Appalachians. It’s a clever idea, but it trips over one of its objectives, breaking the stereotype that the region isn’t inhabited by ignorant hillbillies.


If you can’t stomach children in jeopardy, adults amorally using kids for their own purposes, an entire county addicted to drugs, death at an early age, and failed social systems, you should steer clear of Demon Copperhead. Demon was almost never born. His teenaged addict mother passed out on the kitchen floor, went into labor, and expelled her son still trapped inside the amniotic sac. Given what happens to him over the next several decades you might conclude it would have merciful had he not been rescued by next-door neighbor Mrs. Peggot. Like Copperfield, Demon becomes a ward of society at an early age. His tribulations make those Copperfield seem almost cheerful by contrast.


Kingsolver’s Lee County is populated by those with nicknames and traits that mirror those in Dickens: Demon’s evil stepfather Murrell Stone (“Stoner”) is Dickens’ Murdstone; his best friend Matt (“Maggot”) is Ham Peggotty; the scheming McCobb foster family is the Micawbers; the cruel Mr. Crickson (“Creaky”) is borstal headmaster Mr. Creakle; Mrs. Peggot is Clara Peggotty crossed with Mrs. Gummidge; foster home friend Tommy is Tommy Waddles; the oily “U-Haul” is Uriah Heep; Sterling Ford (“Fast Forward”) is a down-market James Steerforth; Demon’s grandmother Betsy Woodall and her brother “Mr. Dick” are Betsey Trotwood and Richard Babley; Demon’s first wife Dori Spencer is Dickens’ Dora Spenlow and his second love Agnes (“Angus”) Winfield is Agnes Wickfield. You'll find numerous other near-pairings. Kingsolver’s most original idea is to make Demon a Melungeon, a white/black/native mixed race common in that section of Virginia.


Homage can be tricky. There are modern twists in Demon Copperhead–OxyContin/fentanyl addiction, a gay character, a Southeast Asian storekeeper, an interracial couple, cartoons and graphic novels, football at the expense of health and education, disappearing jobs, sexism, Walmart, dollar stores, appalling diets–but the storyline remains that of Dickens. Therein lies several problems. I adored the first few hundred pages of the novel but at some point, it begins to read as if it's a sociological expose of Southern poverty and, by extension, regional inhabitants. When six-year-old Demon comments, “I was inked with the shitprints of life: thrashings, lies told, days on getting peaced out on weed, months of going hungry,” it feels as if he speaks for everyone in the county.


Dickensian humor is sorely lacking. Kingsolver has eccentric characters, but few funny ones, which Dickens used to relieve despair. The McCobbs are not like the Micawbers, nor Mrs. Peggot a risible “poor lone creature” like Mrs. Gummidge. We feel sorry for Demon and his cohort, but none possess Copperfield’s essential goodness. Overall, there are very few sympathetic characters, especially on the adult side of the ledger. Readers will notice that aside from Mr. and Mrs. Peggot and their daughter Jane, the adults are uniformly awful. Indeed, the bulk of the book’s characters are so feral that one could conclude that the region is dominated by drug-addled rednecks.


Is Kingsolver offering verisimilitude or exaggerated sensationalism? There’s no faulting Kingsolver’s prose; she expertly captures the inner thoughts of a posturing-but-scarred youngster, makes readers recoil in horror, and is positively elegiac in describing the landscape. Mostly, though, she drags us through the mud. Perhaps your constitution is stronger than mine, but I felt like I needed a week of hot showers to wash away feelings of hopelessness. Dickens’ novel runs 624 pages and Kingsolver’s 556, but hers feels as if it’s twice that length. By the time we finish, Kingsolver’s semblance of a happy ending rings false–quite unlike David Copperfield’s triumph.


Rob Weir