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At age 64, debut novelist Bonnie Garmus makes the case for experience

Garmus’s novel ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ delivers an assured voice, an indelible heroine and relatable love stories

(Doubleday; Serena Bolton)

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Judith Krantz, Bonnie Garmus is a latecomer to the literary scene. This week she publishes her first book — the sparkling novel “Lessons in Chemistry” — days shy of her 65th birthday. Hurray for this! If we’re going to continually fuss over newly minted MFA wunderkinds landing two-book deals, let us also raise a glass — or, better yet, Garmus’s book — in honor of this rarer breed of first-time novelists.

With “Lessons in Chemistry,” Garmus, a venerable copywriter and creative director, delivers an assured voice, an indelible heroine and several love stories — that of a mother for her daughter, a woman for science, a dog for a child, and between a woman and man.

We need comic novels more than ever. So where are they?

At the center of the novel is Elizabeth Zott, a gifted research chemist, absurdly self-assured and immune to social convention, “a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who was not average and never would be.” (Is it any wonder that Oscar-winner Brie Larson is set to play her in an Apple TV Plus “Lessons” series that she will also executive produce?)

The novel is set in the early 1960s in the mythical Southern California town of Commons where, it appears, few people are. Being a woman in science is a hard, lonely road. Elizabeth becomes a national somebody not in the lab but as a kitchen savant on a local afternoon television show called “Supper at Six.” Her nutritious dishes are doused in chemistry with a heaping side order of female empowerment.

“When women understand chemistry," she explains to a reporter, “they understand how things work." Science offers “the real rules that govern the physical world. When women understand these basic concepts, they can begin to see the false limits that have been created for them.” It’s better living through casseroles.

A decade earlier, Elizabeth met Nobel-nominated chemist and master grudge-holder Calvin Evans at the Hastings Research Institute, where he is a star and she is not because, well, sexism. They fit because they don’t anywhere else. Garmus has packed her novel with rowing (“As any non-rower can tell you, rowers are not fun. This is because rowers only ever want to talk about rowing”), heartache, corporate malfeasance and, that most relished and rarest of real-life events, a humiliating comeuppance.

Women are over the underwire bra

Elizabeth is a feminist and modern thinker. She has little talent for ingratiating herself with other people. It is Elizabeth, not her equally eccentric and stubborn swain, who refuses to wed “because I can’t risk having my scientific contributions submerged beneath your name.” Her obstinance, becoming an unwed mother at a time when they were shunted elsewhere, creates a heap of trouble for her in a world nowhere ready for her mind, character or ambition.

There is an infectious absurdity to the book and its hero. Here’s Elizabeth discussing the hydrogen chemical bond on a show ostensibly about dinner: “I call this the ‘love at first sight’ bond because both parties are drawn to each other based solely on visual information: you like his smile, he likes your hair. But then you talk and discover he’s a closet Nazi and thinks women complain too much. Poof. Just like that the delicate bond is broken. That’s the hydrogen bond for you ladies — a chemical reminder that if things are too good to be true, they probably are.”

Then, with her knife, she takes a “Paul Bunyan swing” at an onion. “It’s chicken pot pie night,” she declares. “Let’s get started.”

Could “Lessons” have been a few instructions tauter? Certainly. Garmus knows her characters from the initial pages. There’s little need to keep informing readers how exceptional they are or how adamant Elizabeth is in pursuing her truth. Also, every dog may have its day, but that doesn’t mean he need scamper through a novel as an astute fictional character. “Welcome to life on the outside! How was your trip? Please, come in, come in! I’ve got chalk!” These are the musings of Elizabeth’s dog, Six-Thirty (a nod to the time he joined the family) as he welcomes baby Madeleine into his world.

Still, Garmus manages to charm. She’s created an indelible assemblage of stubborn, idiosyncratic characters. She’s given us a comic novel at precisely the moment we crave one. Perhaps, in her next effort, Garmus will provide a heroine who is more her peer, someone who would be a perfect role for, say, Emma Thompson or Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Karen Heller is national features writer for Style.

Lessons in Chemistry

By Bonnie Garmus

Doubleday. 400 pp. $29

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