Most books contain a handful of redeemable qualities that hold the reader’s interest throughout; we’ll call these “good” books. What, then, is required for a book to be considered “great” or truly remarkable?
Here are a few criteria I like to consider when evaluating books. If you answer “yes” to most of the following questions, chances are you’ve stumbled upon an exceptional book.
· Is the plot unique and compelling?
· Are the characters memorable and knowable with specific quirks and flaws?
· Does the book evoke a wide range of emotions?
· Does the book teach you something new?
· Does the book leave you wanting to read more by this author?
· Does the book stick with you long after you’ve devoured the last page?
I recently finished the book Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which ticks every box of my book evaluation list. This debut novel set in 1960s California is highly decorated with awards and continues to linger at the top of a few prominent bestselling lists, despite its release in March 2022. Elizabeth Zott is arguably the brightest chemist among her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute. The only other chemist that comes close to matching her intelligence is the lonely, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder, Calvin Evans.
Elizabeth, a self-determined and socially clueless feminist, collides with Calvin Evans one evening, igniting an undeniable chemical reaction they soon recognize as love.
Life, unlike science, is largely unpredictable. A few years later, Zott becomes a single mother in desperate need of money and reluctantly becomes the star of America’s most beloved cooking show, Supper at Six.
Zott’s straightforward and chemical approach to cooking ("combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride") proves revolutionary. Zott isn't just teaching women to cook, she's empowering them to become their best selves, inspiring them to believe in their potential, encouraging them to pursue their dreams, and daring them to change the status quo.
The book explores ideas of sexism in the workplace, motherhood, and the meaning of family in an era where the idea of a woman working outside of the home is laughable and frequently met with both sexual and verbal assault. Elizabeth Zott, however, won’t stop until she is taken seriously, despite repeated offenses by men who insist she isn’t smart enough, then turn around to steal her work and put their name on it.
I laughed, gasped, groaned, and cried. I felt sadness, surprise, affection, and empathy. Elizabeth Zott and her dog, 6:30, are a pair you won’t easily forget. You’ll find yourself immersed in the world of rowing while simultaneously swimming in scientific jargon—and enjoying it!
This is a story about loss, about finding the courage to become your truest self no matter the cost, and about following your dreams. Ultimately, this is a story about connection and change.
I can’t wait to read more work from Bonnie Garmus, who is currently working on her second novel. I’m also looking forward to the “Lessons in Chemistry” TV Series which is due to premier on AppleTV+ this fall. Yes, you will want to read the book first. It’s that good. In the final episode of Supper at Six, Elizabeth Zott encourages her devoted viewers to seek meaningful change. “Chemistry is change,” she began. “Whenever you start doubting yourself, whenever you feel afraid, just remember—courage is the root of change and change is what we’re chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge: no more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to other’s opinions of what you can and cannot achieve, and no more allowing anyone to pigeonhole you into useless categories of sex, race, economic status, and religion. Do not allow your talents to lay dormant, ladies. Design your own future. When you go home today, ask yourself what you will change, and then get started.”