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What We're Reading Now

How Books Can Help

14 February 2023

Barbara read Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel by Bonnie Garmus, and was strengthened by the toughness of the main character.

Tags: barbara read, books, diversity, grief

When I was teaching at a physician conference years ago, another faculty member who taught a course on achieving balance in your life asked me what I did for fun. It just so happened I had made a list the week before because I had read something that suggested it, and I had ready the most spontaneous reply of my life. I quickly said—read, write, paint, sew, knit, dance.

Reading was and remains first on the list. I have a regular book or my iPad close by at all times. A good novel with a love story and great writing will help me leave the thoughts of troubles about my own life and escape into someone else’s. If the words are beautifully put together, it makes me feel even better.

Lessons in Chemistry is about science, rowing, love, a dog, a baby, resilience, and a statement about women’s rights in the 1950s. The dog parts require a “willing suspension of disbelief,” but I loved every word he spoke.

The writing was so good I reread the whole story again as soon as I finished it for the absolutely riveting enjoyment of the story, and also to try to study what the author had done that made me think it was so well written.

For example, when I read the main character Elizabeth’s shockingly honest description of being a new mother, I thought how did she know exactly how I felt? “Every day she found parenthood like taking a test for which she had not studied. The questions were daunting and there wasn’t nearly enough multiple choice. Occasionally she woke up damp with sweat, having imagined a knock at the door and some sort of authority figure with an empty baby-sized basket saying, ‘We’ve just reviewed your last parental performance report and there’s really no nice way to put this. You’re fired.’” When my mother left after staying with me for a week when my daughter was born, I thought this is scarier than the worse college exam I ever had.

Elizabeth wore pants when few other women except Kathryn Hepburn did. She believed most of life’s problems could be solved with chemistry because chemistry is change. She learned to effectively deal with sexual abuse at work. After being fired from her job, she gave the concept of nesting while pregnant a new meaning. She took a sledge hammer to her kitchen and turned it into a fully functioning science laboratory.

These days I repeatedly look for novels and movies about women who are strong and courageous. For the last three months of 2022, my husband needed 24/7 caregiving. As an introvert who has always craved alone time, it was an adjustment to always have a person in the house watching everything that was happening, but at the time of each shift change, I prayed the wonderful person would show up and do the things I was not physically capable of doing.

Now that my beloved has died, I am exhausted and grieving. With weekly reminders from my therapist to be extremely gentle with myself, I am resting like I never have before. Some days I sleep from 9pm to 9am and take a two-hour nap. I also try to return to the things that have always brought me comfort, like reading. In times like these, I’m even more grateful for books like Lessons in Chemistry and its example of a woman who had enormous psychological strength and determination to create a new life.


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