I know that I am by far not the only person to have enjoyed reading ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ this summer, given the rave reviews that the book has received – although I offer a particular thank you to the friend who recommended it to me. She is also on the Board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, so a very well-qualified source; I had no hesitation in reading the book after her prompt, and I am absolutely delighted that I did. The book – as I am sure you know by now – is the quirky and joyful debut novel by Bonnie Garmuss about a female chemist who becomes a TV cooking show host in the 1960s; what struck me as I indulged myself in reading it was just how much it challenged social assumptions, and I wanted to reflect here about the lessons we can take from it.
Challenge of assumptions lies at the heart of the story, and we recognise in the description of 1950s America a society from which we have sought to move on, not least in the expectations and treatment of women … although we still have a long way to go. In fact, listening to Bonnie Garmuss herself talk about her novel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday, it was clear that one of the main drivers for her in writing the story was indeed to show the importance of continuing to challenge stereotypes, and the uphill struggle that this involves. While she focuses especially on the struggle faced – in living memory – by intelligent women to be recognised as equals by their male peers, her message is one that will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced some kind of bias, because of their appearance, age, background … the list is endless.
Prejudice and bias are incredibly deep-rooted in our psyche, as you will see if you complete some of the tasks in Harvard University’s Project Implicit; we learn about ourselves when we recognise this. Accepting that we possess bias does not make us ‘bad people’; it should, however, encourage us to keep learning about the diverse views of others, and to challenge our own assumptions. Challenging assumptions helps our brains to grow, gives us life and energy, and keeps us alive and open to a world of possibility; ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ reminds us of the satisfaction of daring to strive to change the status quo, in a way that turns out better for all.
So – if you haven’t read ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ yet, then do. It made me laugh out loud in places, and cry in others; I hope you have a similar experience. And definitely let it remind you that we can, together, make this world a more embracing place for everyone.