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11/09/2022 | Literary criticism

"A Question of Chemistry" by Bonnie Garmus: chemist Elizabeth Zott.

by Britta Sommer

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. This is exactly how, and no differently, any characterization of the main protagonist should begin. Elizabeth Zott may also be a gifted cook, an authentic TV presenter, a self-confident housewife, and an exceptional mother, but first and foremost she is a chemist in a time when this profession is predominantly practiced by men and women are assumed to be secretaries in a research institution per se.

"In short, subordinating women to men and men to women is not biological: it's cultural. And it all starts with two words: pink and blue. It all goes inexorably downhill from there."

In her 2022 debut novel, American Bonnie Garmus creates an incredibly intelligent and strong female character who opposes such role stereotypes and stands up for her goals and values in a male-dominated society. After all, the female gender does not have it easy in 1952: Often, the professional aspirations of the protagonists in the book are not taken seriously, they are beaten by their husbands, raped by their academic supervisors and labeled as liars by the police officers in charge, who should not put on a skirt as an "obvious request" and rather show "some remorse." Not only once does one feel reminded of the debates of today's society, although Garmus' narrative is set in a different time. For example, it is incomprehensible to Zott that she does not receive the same salary as her male colleagues, or how it can be readily assumed that married women bear their husbands' last names. Why it's not the other way around? "Very funny. [...] You know why. Men don't do that."

"A woman wants to tell me what pregnancy is? Who do you think you are?" The question seemed to take her by surprise. "I'm a woman," she said.

But the novel is not a drama, even if this introduction initially suggests otherwise. Although one becomes stuff:in extreme scenes, Bonnie Garmus manages to switch between a wide range of emotions seemingly effortlessly and within a very short time: Repeatedly, she brings one first to depressed speechlessness due to the described conditions and only shortly after to liberated laughter. This joke results above all from the sober and rational way of the main protagonist. Zott doesn't seem to understand rhetorical questions or irony, often misinterprets what people want to express, can't read emotions, and obviously has a very unique or even no sense of humor. When her daughter is disappointed that her friends aren't interested in knots and arrowheads, she gets advice from her mother, "Well, why don't you try the periodic table next week? That always goes over well!" In short, Elizabeth Zott is different from the people around her. But she is wonderfully different. For it is with this almost naïve trait of the main character that Garmus is able to punctuate the abstruse attitudes of society at the time. When Zott can't comprehend the thought processes of those around her, she picks at them completely bluntly or usually unintentionally misinterprets what they say, so that the questionable beliefs of those around her are revealed in the ensuing dialogues, which are both clever and witty.

"And what's with the pants?" (...) "Do you like them? I'm sure I do. After all, you wear them all the time, and I can see why. Pants are very comfortable."

"Now I break the internal bond to extend the amino acid chain [...], which allows the released atoms to bond to other atoms that have also been released." What chemical experiment is being described here? The whisking of an egg. That's not chemistry? Yes it is, that's exactly what cooking is according to Elizabeth Zott. Sodium chloride is salt, acetylsalicylic acid is aspirin, CH3COOH is vinegar, she calls a dish an experiment, instead of an apron she wears a smock, and her kitchen is a laboratory. Due to a series of strokes of fate, she finally gives up her job at the research institute and becomes host of the TV cooking show 'Essen um sechs'. There, she teaches the viewers in front of their TV sets at home recipes that are not always easy to understand, but delicious, and in the process becomes a role model completely involuntarily. Incredibly courageous, she defies the editor who demands that she be the "sexy wife and loving mother that every man wants to see after work". Instead, she encourages a change in thinking and encourages women to take charge of their lives. If they are housewives, this should definitely be valued by society, she says, because this work is the "most underestimated job in the world." In the same way, however, he said, it should be accepted when female viewers pursue careers as heart surgeons. Zott firmly believes that women can do anything and in this way becomes the idol of an entire generation. This feeling persists not only within the pages of the book. The author creates a character who is thoroughly sympathetic. As a reader:in, you root for her through all the ups and downs of her life, rejoicing every time Elizabeth Zott triumphs over a man or helps a woman achieve the same self-confidence that she herself possesses.

"Cooking is chemistry," she said, "and chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything - yourself included - starts here."

Critically, however, the author often employs a dramatization that the story didn't need. Tragic car accidents, abstruse entanglements and above all strange coincidences pile up, so that the high quantity of unusual characters and outlandish life stories can rather be described as unrealistic. But as the quote on the blurb from Elke Heidenreich suggests ("She's so great and naturally portrayed that I even googled her: She must really exist, I thought!"), Bonnie Garmus breathes life into the characters precisely because they have such special traits. The omniscient, auctorial narrator switches into the perspectives of other protagonists, allowing the reader to peer into a wide variety of minds. He travels into the future for a sentence, anticipates certain events in the story, or poses numerous riddles that arouse curiosity. This play with information distribution keeps the tension high, the special characters immerse you in the narrative, the clever dialogues make you smile, and the changes of perspective provide variety. Despite the sometimes overdrawn characters with highly dramatic experiences, Bonnie Garmus has created a character with her debut novel that you will remember for a long time. an emancipated fighter, gifted cook, authentic TV presenter, self-confident housewife and extraordinary mother, but first and foremost an intelligent chemist. Because Elizabeth Zott is a chemist.