Meet two wildly different protagonists in two wildly different eras.
Whether you’ve resolved to read more this year or are simply looking for a companion to wait out the rain, check out these sweet books on cooking shows and chemistry.
Lessons in Chemistry
A no-nonsense scientist navigates career, family, sexism, and showbiz.
By Bonnie Garmus
Doubleday (2022); 386 pages
The only thing that gave her any respite at all was the theater
and even that sometimes disappointed.
Chemist Elizabeth Zott is well-grounded, logical, and desperately in need of escape. And, unlike the usual “chemistry” tale, her desired solution doesn’t lie primarily in landing a man.
With a searching scientific mind in an era of The woman’s place is in the kitchen, Zott finds an improbable way of combining the two. Out of options and out of money after a series of demoralizing events, she’s roped into hosting a daytime TV cooking show where — under the guise of providing safe, canned entertainment for bored housewives — she’ll intrigue their minds and expand their world views instead.
Lessons in Chemistry is a serious read that doesn’t feel like one. It’s not saccharine. It works its way through isolation, grief, and sexism. But it does so in a way that dares you to devour it. And so, reading slump be damned, I found myself wolfing down this book, just shy of 400 pages, in just over a day. With plenty of steam to read more.
Garmus’ stellar debut roped me in with its plot line of food and TV (always a winning combination) and solid writing, then surprised me with its keen observations, captivating characters, and unexpected elements of suspense. This is the best book I’ve read in a long time.
Great for: readers of romance who want something meatier; those frustrated with societal prescriptions and limitations; and those who’ve felt underestimated and undervalued for too long.
Available at Nook and Cranny Books, the new Capitol Hill (Seattle) bookstore of longtime theatre-lover and -maker Maren Comendant (who, fittingly for these books, is also a chef), here. Also available at Third Place Books (multiple locations), Amazon, and more.
Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble
Fancy biscuits, flailing love life.
By Alexis Hall
Hachette (2022); 370 pages
Honey, if this is you sounding rehearsed,
do not go into improv.
Where Lessons in Chemistry features a highly competent professional in a world dead-set on helping her fail, Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble features a self-sabotaging protagonist who’s determined to, well, crumble.
No one is more convinced of Paris’ failings than himself. And no one’s more surprised that he’d end up in the national spotlight on a TV baking show, either. It was just that going with the flow was less confrontational than contradicting his roommate — a self-described fat Glaswegian sex goddess — who threw his name in the ring to go on the show.
Two aspects make this book a hard one to get into. First, Paris is so self-deprecating and skittish that he quickly grows tiresome. Second, the narrative arc — boy meets boy and baking show, boy self-sabotages with boy and baking show, boy redeems himself with some or all of the above — is painfully predictable. Where suspense makes Lessons in Chemistry impossible to put down, the predictability here, coupled with the tiresome lead, often makes this one hard to pick back up.
But Alexis Hall is a sharp, witty writer — Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, something of a prequel to this one (though they stand independently), is a favorite — and I had to see what antics this cast of characters would get up to next.
It’s worth riding out. The book finds its stride midway in, as the title character grows, bit by bit. It deals candidly but gently with mental health, and wades respectfully into the fraught topic of religion and queerness. (One key character is proudly gay and Muslim.) Some of the TV show bits are wacky and wonderful. Situations move from tiresome to riotous.
Best of all, though Paris’ self-sabotaging anxiety goes from bad to worse before it gets better, his rebuilding is so sweet, and a say-it-like-it-is friend is a welcome (and helpful) contrast. In this book it’s okay to be messy, and sometimes we all need that assurance.
Great for: lovers of queer romance, British humor, and reality TV.
Available at Third Place Books (multiple locations) here, Amazon, and more.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org. He sometimes reads 50 books in a year and sometimes does not.