Lessons in Chemistry = Lessons in Life

It’s a rare feeling – to be so engrossed in something that you want to keep it going, but all the while being heartbroken because you know that when it’s over, you’ll be devastated.

Recently I caught covid – for which I am still recovering – so it was my time to quarantine in a way that I hadn’t since March 2020. I took 5.5 (which is hopefully the extent of it) days off of work, and I sat in my room like Rapunzel waiting for my life to begin.

I knew exactly how I got sick too. I went to an event in DC with book club (my closest friends collectively called “book club” because of our monthly – now, way less frequent – book club meetings where we eat decadent food, drink fancy drinks (mulled wine in the winter is fantastic!), and catch up on each other’s lives. Depending on the book, we spend all of 10 – 30 minutes on it before we change topics. Last week, Christine hosted book club with the book Neverwhere by Nail Gaiman – and yes, I do love Neil Gaiman, but we spent most of the night talking about Harry Potter and how much we appreciate low-fantasy worlds).

This DC event was a Disney event definitely marketed for 90s babies because the Disney songs were 90s and 00s, with some current bops thrown in there. Of course I went crazy when What Dreams Are Made Of, came on and we stormed the stage, and again, rightfully so when the DJ said “It’s time we have a serious discussion about Bruno” and the present classic started blaring on the speakers, but I mostly lost it when the DJ played the Arthur Theme Song (yes, from PBS) and then the FRIENDS Theme Song. It’s like the DJ knew “Sandhya is in the audience, I have to do this for her.” Naturally, I went a bit overboard. What started off as a responsible night of double masking, and a classy but fun night with my friends… turned into a sweaty rager where my legs were sore from repeatedly jumping up and down for 3 hours, and a lost voice to accompany my soreness because my larynx said “enough already sis, I know you spent the car ride both ways and the entire concert screeching to these Disney Songs.

So yeah, that’s where I got covid. BUT, it was still a top 5 night of my life. Not to bring it back to Harry Potter, but if I had to cast a patronus charm, I would think of that night.

But alas, quarantine it was. I’m not going to delve into my symptoms of covid (though, in addition to covid I also got a staph infection from disney night, so really love the fact that I’m a walking bioweapon right now) but instead focus on how I spent my time. I don’t really remember what I did the first few days – I remember being in a lot of pain, having a horrible sore throat, doing a lot of salt-water gargles, and sleeping a lot.

But I also split a lot of my time between journaling, watching Black-ish, and reading books. I’m quite pleased that I’ve found my way back to reading after a hiatus and I have missed it. For years, all I read were intellectual (read: boring!) books for classes and to prepare for subjects where I’ll be tested and pit against my fellow colleagues for a “great grade.” Sigh, law school.

But reading is an escape – and a much needed one too. So I read books like The Last Thing He Told Me, The Hotel Nantucket, and The Guest List. But most recently, and a book that “changed my life” is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.

This book was a refreshing, inspiring, gravitating, funny, and heartbreaking change from what I’ve been reading recently. It’s been so long since I’ve felt the need to keep reading but also force myself to slow down because I know I’ll be absolutely heartbroken when it’s over.

Lessons in Chemistry is about a chemist, Elizabeth Zott, who lives in Commons, California in the 1960s and works at the Hastings Research Institute. Naturally, Zott doesn’t get the respect of her colleagues because she is a woman (as if so much as changed) – she’s undermined, underpaid, minimized, and “not fulfilling her role as a woman.” When she’s pregnant with her daughter, Mad(eline), Hastings fires her and Elizabeth is at home, trying to figure out how to work as a chemist without the lab. Fast forward 4 years, Elizabeth becomes a star of a cooking show, “Supper at Six.” Though if anyone were to ask, she would say it’s not a cooking show, it’s chemistry, and the two, are in fact, intertwined. So, every day, for 30 minutes, she caters to the “average housewife” and teaches them how to cook but also how to be brave, and break the status quo.

The first half of the book is a flashback to how Elizabeth Zott became Elizabeth Zott, star of Supper at Six, and the second half is her life from the present onwards. But, of course, make no mistake, throughout the book, she is indeed, a chemist.

This book is fantastic, but it’s the author who says it best:

Read this book if you’re “tired of all the ways people make life miserable for others through misogyny and racism, and all the societal burdens that surely should have been eradicated by now.” Also read this book for “some inspiration from a woman in the sixties who refuses to conform and because of it, encourages a nation to dare and be different.”

Bonnie Garmus

I’m usually not a proponent of chemistry (I’m more of a physics girl myself), but this book changed the way I think about science, about my role in society, about not conforming to societal expectations, and the advantages of being brave.

Yesterday night, I finished the book. Like I said, I knew I would be devastated when it finished.

I’ve said it before, only about Brene Brown’s special, and I’ll say it again about this book: there’s my life before I read this book, and there’s my life after. Ever since I’ve finished it, it’s been living rent free in my mind, that I actually started it again this afternoon.

I’m not usually the type of person who stops halfway through reading a page and then starts taking notes, but this time I had a large packet of sticky notes and I started noting down passages and marking up sections that particularly perplexed me, inspired me, or I just simply wanted to reread because of its poetic nature. To give you a glimpse of the book, here is a short passage from Chapter 25 and later from Chapter 26:

Excerpt from Chapter 25
Elizabeth strode out on the stage ... She was wearing a drab dress featuring small buttons that ran all the way down to the hem, a stark white multipocketed apron cinched tightly at the waist, and a Timex wristwatch that ticked so loudly, he [the producer, Walter] swore he could hear it over the band's drumbeat. On her head, sat a pair of goggles. Just over her left ear, a number-two pencil. In one hand she carried a notebook; in the other, three test tubes. She looked like a cross between a hotel maid and a bomb squad expert. 
He watched as she waited for the song to finish, her eyes traveling around the set from one corner to another, lips pressed together, and shoulders tensed in a way that signaled dissatisfaction. As the last note played, she turned toward the cue card, scanned it, then turned away. Setting her notebook and test tubes on the counter, she walked to the sink, her back to the camera, and leaned into the fake window to take in the fake view.
"This is revolting," she said directly into the microphone.
The cameraman turned to look at Walter, his eyes wide.
"Remind her we're live," Walter hissed at him.
LIVE!!! the cameraman's assistant hastily scribbled on a large board, holding it up for her to see.
Elizabeth read the reminder, and then holding up one finger as if to signal that this would only take another second, continued her self-guided tour, stopping to take in the kitchen's carefully curated wall art--a Bless This House needlepoint, a depressed Jesus kneeling in prayer, an amateur painting of ships sailing on a sea--before moving on to crowded countertops, her brows arching in dismay at a sewing basket riddled with safety pins, a Mason jar filled with unwanted buttons, a ball of brown yarn, a chipped candy dish filled with peppermints, and a bread box across which Our Daily Bread was scrawled in religious script.
Just yesterday, Walter had given the set designer an A+ for his taste: "I especially love the knickknacks," he'd told him. "They're just right." But today, next to her, they looked like junk. He watched as she paced to the other side of the counter, visibly blanching at the sight of hen and rooster salt and pepper shakers, hostilely eyeing the toaster's knitted pink cozy, recoiling from strange little ball made entirely of rubber bands. To the left of the ball was a cookie jar molded to look like a fat German woman making pretzels. She stopped abruptly, looking over her head at the large clock hanging on wires, its hand permanently fixed in the six o'clock position. SUPPER AT SIX was printed across its face in glittery type.

[back on stage, a little later]
"Now, where were we?" She glanced at the cut cards, paused a moment more, and then suddenly pointed at the large clock above her head. "Before I get started, I'd like to advise you to please ignore the clock. It doesn't work."
Excerpt from Chapter 26
"Welcome to our first live audience show," Elizabeth said. "Every afternoon, Monday through Friday, we'll make dinner together. Starting with tonight's supper: spinach casserole. ... But first we need to clean up our work space" His [Walter's] eyes flew open as she picked up the ball of brown yarn and tossed it into the audience.
No, no, he begged silently. The cameraman glanced back at him as the audience erupted in nervous laughter.
"Anyone need rubber bands?" she asked, holding up the rubber band ball. Several hands went up, so she tossed that into the audience as well
"I like having room to work," she said, "It reinforces the idea that the work you and I are about to do is important. And today I have a lot to do and could use some help getting even more room. Could anyone use a cookie jar?"
To Walter's horror, almost all the hands went up, and before he knew it, people were milling about the set as Elizabeth encouraged them to take whatever they wanted. In less than a minute, every single item was gone---even the wall art. The only thing that remained was the fake window and the large clock.
"Okay," she said in a serious tone as the audience returned to their seats, "Now let's get started."

The entire book continues like that — she is on a mission and no one is going to stop her, or tell her that she isn’t a chemist, that she can’t do what men can do, and that she’s not enough. She’s bold, brave, stubborn, headstrong, determined, pioneering, and tenacious, She’s an icon for everything that I wish I was. She inspires people around her.

“Despite what Elizabeth Zott will tell you, Supper at Six is not just an introduction to chemistry. it’s a thirty-minute, five-day-a-week lesson in life. And not in who we are or what we’re made of, but rather, who we’re capable of becoming.

Page 334, Lessons in Chemistry

One of my mentors used to tell me, “being underestimated is your greatest strength” – and this book channels exactly that. For a woman who has been constantly underestimated her whole life and told to act in a certain way, Elizabeth said “enough is enough” and refused to change simply because it was the “easier” thing to do. I am who I am today because of all the people before me who paved this path for me, and I will not squander it and neither should you.

Look, I’m not trying to oversell it or anything, nor do I know the author personally or getting any sort of deal/cut in this advertisement – I’m just a girl who feels inspired to do better, be better, and live better, and challenges you to do the same.

This week, be a little braver: ask for what you deserve, demand respect from your peers, and live not only for future opportunities, but for your potential.



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3 Comments Add yours

  1. It always makes me so happy when someone loves a book this much 🥰 despite an icky COVID week, I’m glad you were able to find something meaningful in it! 💝

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sandhya says:

      Thank you Katie!!! ❤️💖


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