Have you ever experienced the pure serendipity of reading a book at the precise moment you needed to read it? Perhaps you started reading a book about characters learning to grieve, as you were learning to grieve. Or you read a book with a protagonist overcoming an obstacle that you were also attempting to overcome. Regardless of how it comes about, the impact of timely reading can be life-giving, sometimes life-changing, even if it’s in the subtlest of ways.
This past week I read Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus at the precise moment I needed to read it. The story follows Elizabeth Zott and those who influence her life (for better and worse) in the 1950s and 1960s. And here are some of the life lessons I was reminded of when reading this book.
Lessons in authenticity
Throughout the novel, Zott is persistent and consistent in being who she is, a scientist. And she never wavers on this, even when people make her life miserable or don’t understand her and think she’s strange for not following societal conventions that aren’t compatible with her true nature. (Or anyone else’s, for that matter. But more on that another day…) She says at one point, “I don’t want to be a scientist. I am a scientist.”
After Zott is fired from her job at a science lab due to extreme sexism, she even converts her kitchen at home into a lab because a scientist needs a lab. Simple as that. When the mediocre scientists at the lab she previously worked for come to her home for her scientific expertise, she charges them, although she never gets the credit for her work.
And when Zott takes a job as the host of a cooking show in the early 1960s in the US, she refuses to wear tight dresses, have frivolous props on her set, and never condescends to the many women at home who were cooking for their families. Instead, she is insistent that cooking entails chemistry and teaches her viewers real chemistry as they cook. As a result, women at home become more confident in their abilities and value. And her show ends up being a huge success.
Overall, the lesson I was reminded of regarding authenticity: stay true to who you are because you can’t be anyone else anyway–and why would you want to be? A majority of people will respond to your authenticity favorably because people tend to respond to honesty and integrity favorably. Those who don’t are caught up in their own insecurities and are following ridiculous societal conventions that aren’t relative to how human beings naturally are anyway. And they are propagating systems that somehow work for them, or that they’ve convinced themselves as working for them. But you don’t necessarily need to fight them or the “system” head-on.
Lessons in womanhood and feminism
This book explores womanhood realistically, especially those facets around motherhood. Scenes and dialogue centered around being a first-time mother are believable. And the way Zott is treated by some powerful men in the novel is believable too, especially if we’re talking about the era around the early 1960s. When she did not do what they told her to do, they sexually assaulted her. They tried to control her body and her work. Or straight-up stole her work and passed it off as their own.
What’s more poignant in the novel, however, is the role other female characters play. Zott’s greatest adversary is a female character. This female character does anything and everything to destroy Zott’s career and spirit. This character concedes to the powerful men who want Zott gone. Meanwhile, another female character in the novel supports Zott in more ways than one, although she does not necessarily always understand Zott.
Overall, the lessons I was reminded of regarding womanhood and feminism via Lessons in Chemistry are this:
- There is no singular way to be a woman. And if you think there is, you are part of propagating societal conventions and systems that are oppressing women.
- Women helping and supporting other women to be authentically themselves is what true feminism is all about.
Lessons for a way forward
All of these lessons, the lessons I was reminded of as I read Lessons in Chemistry, are pertinent to what’s going on in the world right now. Reading Lessons in Chemistry at the time I did was the epitome of timely reading. It encouraged me to consider what I should do now in the real world, especially as a woman, after the recent overturning of Roe v Wade. Considering what I should do seemed so overwhelming a week ago. But now it seems more doable. All I need to do is be authentic and support other women who are being authentic too, outside the misogynistic societal conventions that are oppressing me and them.
Related posts to read: RE Roe v Wade: Time to write it out and 5 ways overturning Roe v. Wade could help pro-choicers.
Have you read something recently that was timely? What kind of impact has timely reading had on you before? Share your timely reading experiences by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page!