In the early days of television, the period of time after lunch and before dinner was considered a vast desert for producers. These hours reflected the doldrums when human attention spans were foggy. Soap operas and clown shows lulled viewers throughout the afternoon.
Author Bonnie Garmus takes on this historical period in Southern California in her debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry. In the book, Walter Pine knows that he has met someone special when chemist Elizabeth Zott bursts into his office at KCTV to tell him that his daughter has been taking her daughter’s lunches. Elizabeth is wearing her lab coat and a pencil behind her ear and begins explaining the nutritional significance of the lunches she prepares for her daughter.
Elizabeth commands Walter’s attention with her detailed explanation of the chemistry experiment that is cooking, and he’s suddenly struck with an idea. He needs a cooking show to fill the 4:30 p.m. time slot, and he thinks pretty, blonde, brilliant Elizabeth would be a perfect fit.
For her cooking show, Elizabeth prepares school lunches that are executions of high science while being nutritious and delicious. She speaks directly to the women who watch her show, believing they are capable of great things—a notion not widely held in the early 1960s.
As readers take on the great chemistry experiment that is Thanksgiving dinner, I hope they will have time to enjoy this novel. It is a mid-century story with both sorrow and immense humor.
Contributed by Maureen Millea Smith, a librarian and readers’ advisor at the Edina Library and a Minnesota Book Award–winning novelist. You can find her books at maureenmilleasmith.com.