Bonnie Jarmes’ Novel A Question of Chemistry: Formulas and Feminism – Culture

In the mid-1950s, Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist of Bonnie Garmus’ novel, A Question in Chemistry, talks about a book that is, after the Bible, the best-selling book in the United States to date: Benjamin Spock’s Parenting Handbook “Caring for Babies and Children.”

The neighbor is surprised that a man is writing a book about things he knows nothing about “firsthand,” and still: the explosion. One of the best selling books. Do you know what I believe in? His wife wrote it all down and put his name on it. The guy’s name sounds a lot more serious, don’t you think? Elizabeth Zott does not think so, replies succinctly and succinctly with “No,” and her counterpart responds: “That is true.”

This scene well characterizes some of the atmosphere that pervades this novel, an air of feminist awakening in broad sections of society, and sometime before ’68 and the sexual revolution. Elizabeth Zoe has the traits of a feminist role model: first as a chemist who doesn’t stand a chance in a completely male-dominated environment. Then as a TV chef for an early evening program, “Essen ums 6”, in which she presents her liberating ideas for women.

Bonnie who?

Is this leitmotif one of the reasons for the phenomenal, and surprising at first glance, success of this novel by a belated debut author? In any case, one was quite amazed when, at the beginning of April, at the top of the bestseller lists, among the usual suspects such as Sebastian Fitsik, Elideko von Corthy, Elizabeth George and Donna Lyon, a name he had never heard of. By: Bonnie Who?

Born in California in 1957, Bonnie Garmus lived for a long time in Seattle, worked as a creative director, tried her hand at two unpublished novels and began writing a chemistry question after moving to London with her husband a few years ago.

Even what the false advertising has said as a table of contents cannot necessarily be understood as an invitation to read this book immediately and enthusiastically.

A story from the 1960s (although it’s mostly set in the 1950s), “It’s 1961 and women wear blouses and join garden clubs”, dominated by the chemist who never thought he’d become a star on a cooking show? Through which she teaches her audience how to cook less and instead talks about chemical formulas and bonds? It looks original, but not overly attractive.

The cost of the manuscript is two million dollars

On the other hand, this success is not as extraordinary as it might seem. A Question in Chemistry—unlike Delia Owens’s “Lobster Song,” a similarly surprisingly successful book—was planned to be a bestseller from the start.

Two years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which was held digitally only because of Corona, the manuscript of Bonnie Jarmus was considered the best seller and bestseller at that fair. There is talk of $2 million that US publisher Doubleday, which belongs to the Penguin Random House Group, is said to have finally paid for the rights.

Meanwhile, “Question in Chemistry” has been sold to more than 35 countries, and it is in this country that Munich-based Piper Verlag, which belongs to the Swedish Bonnier Group, must have paid large sums for translation and copyright rights. (“Question in Chemistry.” Translated from English by Ulrike Wasel and Klaus Timmermann. 462 p., 22 €).

What called for more: Booksellers wanted to be convinced, among other things, with comparisons like “as smart as ‘Daengambit’ and as amusing as ‘Mrs. Maisel’, as well as displays, posters and other advertising materials, such as a huge box of reading copies just for this novel.

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These PR actions are common practice, but they do not guarantee the best sales. Certainly not always, as now in the case of “Question in Chemistry”. This novel took first or second place on Spiegel’s bestseller list for the entire month of May, so it has continued to sell well week after week.

How often do publishers misjudge so-called trade show books because they pay so much money for them and never import them again. Or with the purchase of bestsellers from other countries, from Spain, France or Italy, which then do not want to work in Germany. In the field of popular literature as well, it is often a question of literary quality as to whether a book will reach a larger audience. A “chemistry question” has this characteristic of paragraphs.

You can feel it right from the start, as Garmus introduces her heroine and gives a new overview: how the single mother of an extraordinarily intelligent five-year-old daughter (who has already read the complete works of Dickens, and who also reads Proust, Faulkner or Melville) to “The Undisputed Star” is a cooking program.

“We will have dinner and there will be a salary.”

This continues with the start of the actual plot. 1952 Elizabeth Zoe falls in love with Calvin Evans, a fellow chemist and Nobel Prize nominee. They both work at a research institute in a small town in Southern California, they are both reclusive and have to put up with their colleagues’ mockery (because she’s a woman, because he’s successful), they both seem destined for each other. However, Zott resists being associated with his famous name, especially when it comes to her own business. Which is why she didn’t want to marry Evans either.

When he dies she’s pregnant, loses her job, turns her kitchen into a chemistry lab, and gets the TV show. She accepts, but has a hard time living up to expectations right from the start on her first show. And that’s why she says, “I take my cooking very seriously and I know you do too.”

To then refer to the “precious time” of housewives and propose a charter: “In my experience, not many people appreciate the work and sacrifice of a wife, mother, or woman. In any case, I am not one of those people. At the end of the thirty minutes, we will do something relevant. Value. We will have accomplished something that will not go unnoticed. We will have dinner. And there will be content.”

Fighter for equality and liberation

It’s fun to read how Zott keeps clashing with the show’s producer and TV staff; How, as stubborn as she is, she conveys to her audience the natural chemistry of food and the bonds it forms when cooking it, using formulas and terminology.

Its primary mission is to increase the knowledge of its viewers and strengthen their self-confidence.

Zot is a liberation and equality campaigner. There’s something cliched about that in this novel, because Bonnie Jarmus trusts the hammer method. All the women in this novel begin to break free: the neighbor who is separated from her husband; the secretary of the institute, who eventually comes to Zott’s aid; Spectator “eating before six” who dares to study medicine.

And there isn’t much mindfulness in a 1950s novel: At the end of each program, Zott advises her exclusively female audience to make time for themselves. Sometimes it’s very obvious how Bonnie Garmus views the 1950s from today’s perspective.

Your Elizabeth Zoe seems to have traveled back and is the archetype of a committed feminist who, despite a lot of resistance, gets her way and does everything right – and of course she should get a lot of applause from many readers in 2022.

But A Question in Chemistry also has compelling things to offer in other fields. When exploring different life stories, particularly that of Zott and Evans, one gets the impression that Garmus went to John Irving or Nick Hornby’s school. An orphanage, a dog named Half-Seven, and a rowing club play important roles. It’s also legitimate to quickly change perspectives within the seasons, whether that dog is involved or Zott’s cooking show events are tied to those in homes across the country.

Despite the few spaces in the back, despite the calculated sense of mission, this is a novel as funny as it is cleverly entertaining. “Don’t be afraid to experiment,” Jarmis allowed her heroine to say in front of the camera. In the case of this novel, there can be no talking about risk. “A Question of Chemistry” is a bestseller.

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