Story Skeleton—Lessons in Chemistry

Plot point analysis of LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY by Bonnie Garmus

Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning novels.

By Michelle Barker

The success of Bonnie Garmus’s first novel, Lessons in Chemistry, is largely the result of two elements: voice and timeliness. The characters in this novel are utterly charming. There’s a fairy tale quality to the story that allows her to get away with a dog that has a full working vocabulary and a four-year-old who reads Nabokov, but she also does this to make a point. Dogs and children—like women—are smarter than the world gives them credit for. 

And while Garmus exaggerates those characters to make that point, she does not exaggerate the situation in which many women found themselves in the 1950s and 60s. Being an unwed mother was tantamount to being a criminal; a married woman could not have a credit card in her name (that didn’t change until 1974, by the way); and the only way a female chemist could get a decent job was on a cooking show. 

The plot of Lessons in Chemistry operates on a series of obstacles and reversals that interfere with Elizabeth Zott’s narrative goal, which is to do research in abiogenesis (a scientific field that was dominated by men at that time). She refuses to settle for what it seems is expected of women: second best. Each obstacle or reversal forces her to pivot and find another way into the boys’ club. 

Obstacles in a plot are like roadblocks a character must get around. Reversals, however, require a total change of direction. Garmus makes liberal use of both to create conflict.           

Opening near the climax 

The structure of this novel is unusual because Garmus doesn’t start with the inciting incident. She starts with a crunch point near the climax, and then steps back to show how the protagonist got there. 

When the novel begins, Elizabeth Zott is a single mother at one of the lowest points of her life, though the reader doesn’t know why. All we know is that it’s 1961 and she’s the host of a wildly successful cooking show called Supper at Six. She’s also deeply depressed and believes her life is over. The note she puts into her daughter’s lunch bag—most people are awful—is how she views the world. It’s only a slight improvement on her original misbelief, which is that all people are awful. 

We learn that Zott is in fact a chemist who, thanks to a Life Magazine article, is known as Luscious Lizzie, a moniker she does not find amusing. 

How (and why) does a research chemist end up as the host of a cooking show? The rest of the novel will answer that question. 

Backing up into stasis and the inciting incident 

Rewind ten years to the Hastings Research Institute where this story begins. Zott works as a chemist in the typically sexist conditions of the time. At this point, she operates on the misbelief that all people are awful, and on the truth at the time that society is a patriarchy founded on the assumption that women are inferior to men. In this job, she’s stuck in a position of ‘second best’—though she seems to be the only person (woman or man) who refuses to believe that’s all she can do.

Her lifelong dream is to do research in the challenging field of abiogenesis—challenging in the sense that a woman couldn’t possibly handle such a thing. It’s also doctoral work, and she doesn’t have a doctorate. Garmus switches into flashback to give us the inciting incident: years earlier, as a graduate student at UCLA, Zott was assaulted by her adviser when she pointed out a problem with the team’s research. She fought back and was subsequently denied admittance to the doctoral program—and because the police blamed her for the attempted rape, she couldn’t press charges. 

This is the first in a series of doors that slam shut for her, the first time the world tries to tell her she must settle for a lesser position because she’s a woman. She accepts the inferior job at the Hastings Institute as a result, but she has no intention of settling. For her it’s just a temporary pivot. 

At the Hastings Institute, she barges into the lab of the famous chemist, Calvin Evans, and naturally assumes he’s as awful as everyone else she’s ever encountered. At first, he is; he assumes Zott is a secretary. But as he gets to know her and realizes she is at least as smart and talented as he is, he redeems himself and becomes the first person to treat her like an equal. Thus begins a fairy-tale romance (and subplot) of two people who are true soulmates. 

Zott is doing work related to abiogenesis when Dr. Donatti, the boss at Hastings, cancels her project. He wants to get rid of her. But when, in a seeming coincidence, a donor approaches him asking to fund the abiogenesis work of an E. Zott, Donatti pretends E. Zott is a man and reluctantly reinstates the project because he wants the money for the institute. 

The triple reversal at the end of Act One 

It looks at this point like Zott will get everything she wants. Calvin Evans proposes, Zott refuses—because she doesn’t want to be known as Mrs. Elizabeth Evans—and then Evans dies in an accident. That is reversal number one. 

In an instant, the support she had at Hastings disappears. And then worse, Zott discovers she’s pregnant (reversal number two, because the last thing she ever wanted was a baby). When Miss Frask, a woman in HR who is jealous of Zott, realizes Zott is both unmarried and pregnant (the horror), she spreads the news. Frask is a woman who has settled. The reader doesn’t understand her motivation at this point, but it will come clear over time that she’s jealous because Zott refuses to accept the notion that she’s inferior to men. 

With Evans now gone, Donatti doesn’t hesitate to fire her (reversal number three)—although he also keeps the research money and doesn’t tell the mysterious donor that E. Zott no longer works there. 

Elizabeth Zott is now forced to change directions on a personal, emotional, and professional level—and she is thrown into Act Two. 

Act Two: Second best 

Unemployed, grief-stricken, and pregnant, Zott sets about transforming her kitchen into a laboratory and regularly using the rowing machine Evans built before he died. She does everything she can to hold onto her identity and continue her research into abiogenesis, trying to convince herself that she doesn’t need a professional lab to achieve her goal and that the upcoming child won’t be an enormous obstacle. 

Three people enter her life to challenge her misbelief that all people are awful: Walter Pine, Harriet Sloane, and Dr. Mason. While her bone-headed colleagues secretly visit her for help with their work and Donatti shamelessly steals her research, these three people turn out to be helpers. 

Dr. Mason, the doctor who delivers her baby, is a fellow rower who treats her as equal to the all-male team and encourages her to return to rowing to keep her sanity. Harriet Sloane is a neighbor—a typical housewife—who shows up to help Zott with the baby. Having had several children of her own, she knows a few survival tricks. But Zott also has some survival tricks to offer her, since Harriet lives with an abusive husband whom she really needs to leave. 

Walter Pine, a television executive and single dad, has a daughter in the same kindergarten class as Zott’s. When an altercation occurs between the girls at school and Zott shows up at the TV station to set Pine straight, he sees the answer to his problem of boring afternoon television: she’s a woman and she’s beautiful. Therefore, she belongs on a cooking show (because what else could a woman do?). 

The last thing Zott wants is to host a cooking show. This is the definition of second best for a female scientist. But she agrees to compromise her goal (another reversal) because she has bills to pay—and because cooking is, in its purest form, chemistry.   

With Zott as host, Walter gets more than he bargained for. She refuses to dumb down the show for her mostly female audience and offer (as the smarmy head of the station, Phil Lebensmal, suggests) a nightly cocktail in a slutty outfit.

She realizes there’s a possible pivot here: she can teach these women chemistry and, not incidentally, encourage them to follow their hearts and do what they really want in life—to not settle for second best. There are a few wonderful ironies at play here—first, that she has had to settle for second best in order to reach these women, and second, that she gives them a scientific education (something men don’t think they can handle) through a cooking show. She honors their role as mothers but also honors their ability to think by explaining the chemical reactions that occur in cooking and referring to foods by their chemical compounds. 

From powerless to powerful 

When Phil Lebensmal attacks Zott in the privacy of his office, she fights back, and he has a heart attack. This moment is a direct echo of the earlier assault at UCLA, but this time it’s a vindication because Zott takes back her power. With Lebensmal gone, she and Walter Pine are now in charge of the station. She discovers that Lebensmal has been lying to her by telling her the show is a flop. In fact, it’s so popular that other networks want to syndicate it. 

With Walter’s support, Zott is now able to reach women from all over the country. When a Life Magazine writer approaches her to do a major story on her, she eventually agrees and tells him everything. But this will turn out to be a false victory. 

Dark night of the soul 

Here is where the novel finally circles back to the opening. The Life Magazine writer might want to do a legitimate story about Zott, but his editor changes everything and the story that is published is about “Luscious Lizzie” the television star rather than Elizabeth Zott the scientist. Zott is devastated, convinced that the writer betrayed her. That power she thought she had taken back was an illusion: she is still just the host of a cooking show. 

Climax: people can be amazing 

Miss Frask, the former HR person at the Hastings Institute, sees the Life Magazine article and is infuriated. We find out she never wanted to be a secretary. Like Zott, she tried to pursue a doctorate in science and was sexually assaulted by someone in the department. She has long felt guilty for her hand in Zott’s job loss, so she makes amends by writing a letter to the editor of Life, listing Zott’s accomplishments and exposing Donatti as a fraud who stole her research and lied to his investors. 

Letters of support flood the magazine from cooking show fans. The author of the Life Magazine article sends over a letter explaining what actually happened and includes the article he wanted to publish which portrays Zott as a committed scientist. 

But Zott is disheartened. The author submitted his real article to ten scientific magazines, and they all rejected him. Zott’s misbelief about people being awful might be getting challenged, but her other core misbelief—that no one is interested in women in science—remains intact.

She realizes she can no longer accept all these compromises in her life. If she wants to be part of the scientific community as a legitimate scientist, she can’t do it as the host of a cooking show, so she quits her job—another reversal. 

Given the show’s popularity, she assumes she’ll be flooded with offers of employment—but she gets none… until Miss Frask contacts her, saying she is now head of personnel at Hastings and wants to meet with her. 

Turns out Harriet Sloane sent the actual Life article to Vogue Magazine, and it has been published. Men might not be interested in women in science—but women definitely are. And the investors have arrived at Hastings and want to meet with the real E. Zott—Miss E. Zott. 

Zott is immediately suspicious of the situation. However, not only are the investors in earnest, but the head of the foundation also turns out to be Calvin’s real mother. Donatti is fired, and Zott is given Calvin’s old lab and full funding to do the research she’s always wanted in abiogenesis. 

In conclusion 

In this novel, Garmus shows us how obstacles and reversals can be used to build a plot, and how these obstacles and reversals can also work thematically. At first, they force the protagonist to settle for second best, but eventually they goad her to stop compromising herself and get what she needs—a significant position in a lab, doing the work she wanted to do and being treated as an equal.

Michelle Barker, senior editor and award-winning novelist

Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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1 comment

  • Your story skeleton of Lessons in Chemistry is masterful. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel and was riveted by it for several reasons.

    Rosemary McKinley

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