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Lessons in Chemistry: Summary and Character Guide

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lessons in chemistry summary and character guide

Lessons in Chemistry is a popular book written by Bonnie Garmus. It tells the story of Elizabeth Zott, a smart chemist who becomes a TV chef because she’s a young, single mom. The book talks about women’s lives, careers, and the challenges they faced in the late 50s and early 60s.

Bonnie Garmus, the author, has worked in fields like technology, medicine, and education. This is her first novel and became a national bestseller. The story follows Elizabeth and explores issues like sexism at work, limits on women’s dreams, motherhood, and what family means.

In this guide we will go through the complete summary and character analysis of Lessons in Chemistry! I’ve also attached a link for books to consider reading after this one, that share similar themes. Enjoy! ✨

Summary | Characters

About the Author | Book Club Questions

Similar Novels | Additional Recommendations

Lessons in Chemistry Summary

In November 1961, Elizabeth Zott, feeling down, prepares lunch for her daughter Madeline and then goes to work. She’s the star of a popular cooking show called “Supper at Six.” The show started when Elizabeth complained to Walter Pine at KCTV studio about his daughter Amanda stealing Madeline’s lunches. Impressed by Elizabeth’s smarts and cooking skills, Walter suggested the cooking show idea, and Elizabeth reluctantly agreed.

Back in January 1952, Elizabeth works as a chemist at Hastings Research Institute. She was once a doctoral candidate at UCLA, but that got canceled after her advisor, Dr. Meyers, assaulted her, and she defended herself with a pencil. At Hastings, she meets Calvin Evans, another scientist there.

Initially mistaking her for a secretary, Calvin later apologizes and asks her out. Elizabeth declines, but they become friends. When Donatti, the head of chemistry at Hastings, stops Elizabeth from her research, Calvin steps in to help. They start working together, fall in love, and their relationship becomes the envy of their colleagues.

Calvin and Elizabeth slowly share bits of their childhood stories. Elizabeth’s dad was a dishonest religious figure who got jailed, leading her mom to divorce him and escape to Brazil. Elizabeth’s brother tragically took his own life after facing harassment for being gay.

Calvin, on the other hand, grew up in a boys’ home because his family died in accidents. He doesn’t tell Elizabeth that he’s adopted. He thinks a wealthy man, who supports Calvin’s boys’ home, is his biological father. Calvin only confided in an old pen pal, Wakely, who stopped writing when Calvin expressed hatred for his father.

As Calvin gains fame, he gets letters from supposed long-lost relatives, except from his father. One woman claims to be his mother and offers money for his research.

Elizabeth and Calvin move in together but decide not to marry or have kids. Instead, they adopt a clever dog named Six-Thirty. Calvin, a skilled rower, teaches Elizabeth how to row and introduces her to Dr. Mason, the men’s team captain at the local boathouse.

Calvin goes for a run one morning with his dog, Six-Thirty, but tragically slips and hits his head, resulting in his immediate death. Elizabeth, devastated by Calvin’s passing, also learns that she is pregnant with his child. Meanwhile, a wealthy investor had expressed interest in funding Elizabeth’s research. However, Donatti, being dishonest, falsely presents Elizabeth as “Mr. Zott” and diverts the funds for himself.

Word gets out about Elizabeth’s pregnancy at Hastings, thanks to Miss Frask, jeopardizing Donatti’s fraudulent activities. Consequently, Elizabeth is fired from her job. Despite these challenges, she channels her grief and focuses on her work and rowing.

Colleagues from Hastings start consulting with Elizabeth at her home, paying her for her expertise, which becomes her main source of income. To continue her research, she converts her kitchen into a lab. During her pregnancy, Dr. Mason, the obstetrician, expresses surprise that Elizabeth is still rowing but encourages her, noting the potential benefits.

Madeline, Elizabeth’s child, arrives two weeks earlier than expected. Overwhelmed, Elizabeth receives support from her neighbor, Harriet Sloane, who regularly checks in on her and helps with baby Madeline.
When Madeline turns four, Elizabeth puts her in school. Elizabeth goes back to Hastings to ask for a job. Donatti, who is dealing with pressure from an investor, hires Elizabeth as a lab technician. Elizabeth meets Frask again, and they argue.

It comes out that Frask was also mistreated by her advisor and kicked out of her doctoral program. Donatti gets Dr. Boreywitz to steal Elizabeth’s research and publish it as his own. Angry, Elizabeth quits Hastings. Frask tries to make amends by giving Elizabeth Calvin’s notebooks and unfinished work. In them, Elizabeth finds old letters from Calvin’s pen pal Wakely.

A few days later, Walter Pine, whom Elizabeth confronted at a TV studio, offers her a job. Desperate for money, she agrees. Walter’s boss, Phil Lebensmal, tells him to make Elizabeth look “sexy” for TV.

However, Elizabeth refuses every wardrobe option, ignores cue cards, and includes scientific information in her demonstrations. Lebensmal is mad, but the show becomes popular with housewives who appreciate Elizabeth’s respect for them.

Harriet tells Madeline that Calvin had a “fairy godmother,” the person who helped him at the boys’ home. Harriet learned this by snooping around Calvin’s mail years ago. Madeline goes to the library to learn more about the home and meets Wakely, now a reverend. Wakely helps Madeline find the right home and offers to call them for her.

The bishop avoids Wakely’s call because Calvin caused trouble in the past. The bishop lied that Calvin was dead to get funding, but when Calvin became famous, the lie was exposed, and funding stopped. Wakely finally gets through to the bishop, who unintentionally reveals details about the Parker Foundation, which Wakely shares with Madeline.

On a cooking show, Elizabeth insults a potential sponsor. Angry, Lebensmal calls her to his office and tries to assault her. Elizabeth defends herself with a chef’s knife, causing Lebensmal to have a heart attack. Despite this, the show gets new sponsorship and syndication offers. Walter becomes the new executive producer and secures profitable deals for the show.

Elizabeth, after some convincing from her friends Harriet and Walter, agrees to be interviewed by Life magazine. In the interview, she opens up about her past to the reporter, Franklin Roth. However, Roth writes an article focusing only on Elizabeth’s scientific achievements and leaves out personal details. Surprisingly, Life magazine publishes a different article that portrays Elizabeth as an attractive but unsuccessful woman, using quotes from others.

Feeling betrayed and falling into depression, Elizabeth receives Roth’s original article, intended for scientific magazines, from Madeline. Frask, who is now working as Wakely’s typist, reads the article and, angered on Elizabeth’s behalf, sends a letter to Life magazine denouncing the misleading piece. Many others also write letters, and they are all published in the next edition of Life.

After a conversation with Wakely, Elizabeth realizes her passion for scientific work and quits the show. Despite receiving no job offers initially, months later, Frask informs her that the Parker Foundation, which funded abiogenesis, read her story in Life. They investigated Donatti, found his wrongdoing, and made Frask head of personnel. Donatti was fired, and Elizabeth was offered a position as the head of chemistry.

Avery Parker, the woman behind the Parker Foundation, reveals that she is Calvin’s biological mother. Forced to give him up for adoption as a teenager, she had been writing to him. Calvin, unaware of this, had seen a lawyer, Wilson, sent by Avery after his adoptive family passed away. When Avery learned the truth about Calvin and the bishop’s deception, she wanted to be part of the family. Elizabeth warmly invites Avery home for supper.

The book concludes with Elizabeth returning to her abiogenesis research in her lab at Hastings.

Lessons in Chemistry Characters

Elizabeth Zott

Elizabeth Zott is the main character in the story. She used to work as a chemist but became a single mom at 30. Later, she becomes a popular TV chef on the show Supper at Six. Elizabeth is both attractive and smart, but people sometimes focus too much on her looks instead of her intelligence. She’s in a relationship with Calvin Evans and has a daughter named Madeline, but Calvin dies before Madeline is born.

After Madeline’s birth, Elizabeth’s family includes Madeline, her dog Six-Thirty, and her neighbor Harriet, who helps with childcare. Elizabeth doesn’t have other family due to her brother’s suicide and estrangement from her parents. She’s close friends with Walter, her show’s producer.

Elizabeth faces challenges in her career because she’s smart and assertive. Donatti, who dislikes her for these qualities, tries to undermine her. Despite this, he recognizes her talent. Elizabeth is serious and direct, unusual for a TV personality. She insists on sharing scientific info along with cooking on her show, which annoys Walter and Lebensmal.

Her life experiences make her determined and independent. Her father’s religious career makes her an atheist with a rational outlook. Being on her own from a young age, she educated herself with library books, fostering independence. Elizabeth stands up for herself against Meyers, Donatti, and Lebensmal.

Throughout the story, Elizabeth faces injustices but perseveres. Her character grows from an unsupported single mom to a successful woman at the top of her field. By the end, she has a loving and unconventional chosen family, showing her journey from isolation to success and redemption.

Calvin Evans

Calvin Evans is Elizabeth’s love interest and a brilliant chemist. Despite being touted as a science prodigy, he works at his own lab at Hastings. Unfortunately, Calvin dies before he can meet his daughter Madeline, unaware of her existence. Raised in Iowa’s All Saints Boys’ Home after the death of his adoptive family, Calvin harbors resentment against his believed biological father, who he thinks rejected him.

Calvin is unique in how he treats Elizabeth—with respect and as an equal partner. Gender doesn’t play a significant role in his interactions; he values intellect and capabilities above all. His appreciation for Elizabeth’s brilliance leads to their mutual affection. However, Calvin, while unconventional in his gender attitudes, initially wants to marry Elizabeth, seeing it as a way to legitimize their relationship as a family. There’s also a moment where he assumes Elizabeth is a secretary when they first meet.

The relationship between Calvin and Elizabeth is crucial in the story, showcasing what a happy and healthy partnership should look like. It emphasizes mutual respect and appreciation as the foundation for a fulfilling relationship. Calvin’s untimely death triggers significant events in the book, shaping the circumstances that drive the story forward

Six-Thirty and Mad Zott

Mad “Madeline” Zott and Six-Thirty become Elizabeth’s family after Calvin’s passing. Madeline, nicknamed “Mad” due to a hospital miscommunication, is Elizabeth’s daughter. She’s a bright but shy six-year-old when the story begins. Six-Thirty, a dog adopted by Calvin and Elizabeth, followed Elizabeth home from town. Despite failing as a bomb-sniffing trainee due to fear, Six-Thirty proves to be exceptionally intelligent.

Both Madeline and Six-Thirty surpass expectations in intelligence and perception. Madeline reads at a sixth-grade level entering kindergarten at four, and she intuitively understands people’s thoughts and feelings. Six-Thirty, by the end of the book, learns an impressive 921 words and shows a deep understanding of his surroundings, expressing thoughts and emotions.

Madeline and Six-Thirty deeply love and protect Elizabeth. Madeline worries when Elizabeth faces depression after a Life article and is upset when she discovers Elizabeth’s firing from Hastings due to pregnancy. Similarly, Six-Thirty is vigilant about Elizabeth’s well-being, starting from her pregnancy and grieving for Calvin. He even senses a potential threat in the audience of a cooking show, saving lives by finding and removing a bomb from a woman’s handbag despite his own fear.

Together, Madeline and Six-Thirty exemplify the possibility of a loving family with unconventional elements—such as a child born out of wedlock and an exceptionally intelligent dog. Their bond with Elizabeth highlights the strength and support that can come from unconventional family dynamics.

Walter Pine and Harriet Sloane

Harriet Sloane, Elizabeth’s neighbor, and Walter Pine, the father of Madeline’s classmate Amanda, play crucial roles as Elizabeth’s personal and professional support systems. Harriet, trapped in an unhappy marriage, seeks companionship, leading her to check on Elizabeth regularly and assist with Madeline. Despite occasional disagreements, she remains Elizabeth’s biggest support, offering valuable advice that helps Elizabeth navigate the challenges of motherhood and work. In the final episode of the show, Elizabeth publicly acknowledges and thanks Harriet for her pivotal role.

Walter is initially captivated by Elizabeth’s presence and intelligence, prompting him to propose the idea of Supper at Six as a desperate attempt to secure his job. Despite the challenges posed by Elizabeth’s refusal to conform to Lebensmal’s demands, the show becomes a massive success.

Regardless of the constant threat to his own job, Walter exhibits a protective attitude towards Elizabeth, working to extend the show’s contract, accommodating her requests, and shielding her from Lebensmal. Walter’s innate goodness is further evident in his loving and devoted role as a single parent to Amanda, despite knowing he is not her biological father.

Both Harriet and Walter benefit significantly from their relationships with Elizabeth. Elizabeth recognizes and appreciates Harriet’s contributions, providing the older woman with a sense of value she had not experienced before. Similarly, Elizabeth guides Walter in taking charge at KCTV after Lebensmal’s heart attack, encouraging him to do what is right.

The mutual care and support among Elizabeth, Harriet, and Walter lead to a surrogate family dynamic. Eventually, a romantic attachment develops between Harriet and Walter themselves, solidifying the bond between these three individuals as they navigate life’s challenges together.

Phil Lebensmal, Dr. Meyers and Donatti

Phil Lebensmal, Dr. Meyers and Donatti, are characters who embody unfair attitudes towards women. Meyers, Elizabeth’s former PhD supervisor, attempts to assault her and ejects her from the program when she resists. Donatti, the head of chemistry at Hastings, undermines Elizabeth’s career due to his insecurities and biases. Lebensmal, an executive producer at KCTV, objectifies women and harasses Elizabeth for not conforming to his expectations.

These men misuse their positions of power at work. Meyers engages in inappropriate behavior, Donatti sabotages Elizabeth’s career through lies and theft, and Lebensmal intimidates and harasses her.

Despite these challenges, Elizabeth grows stronger. In the end, she achieves justice. Despite not having a PhD, she becomes the head of chemistry at Hastings after Donatti’s dismissal. Moreover, she contributes to the success of Supper at Six, aiding Walter after Lebensmal steps back due to a heart attack.

Happy reading! ❤️