In 2022, Lessons in Chemistry represented one of the most sensational editorial cases of the year: named Barnes & Noble’s book of the year, it sold more than 2 million copies in a few months. A success that didn’t go unnoticed: Apple TV+ immediately moved its wheels, announcing the production of a TV show based on that book. And here it is: Elizabeth Zott, the book’s protagonist, arrived on screen in October 2023 with his fictional cooking show Supper at Six. And although the series is based on the book, a true story inspired the author, Bonnie Garmus, to create the character. Let’s discover it.
Lessons in Chemistry: the true story behind Elizabeth Zott
Lessons in Chemistry is the debut novel by American author Bonnie Garmus, published in April 2022. It follows the story of Elizabeth Zott, a chemist living in California in the 60s, trying to find her dimension in a hostile society.
In the context described by the book, Elizabeth Zott symbolizes how society fails to recognize women for their talents, for what they can offer to the world. Elizabeth is fired from the research institute she works for after she gets pregnant, forcing her to find new ways to assert her identity in society. She uses her chemistry knowledge to continue her research in her kitchen. Years later, she manages to get hired again in the research institute, but she’s demoted to a lower position, and her work is plagiarized by her boss. Her life becomes a constant fight about society’s prejudice about women’s role. Ultimately, she is offered to host a cooking show, and she’ll bring her character into that role, teaching American housewives “more than just recipes.”
The book author, Bonnie Garmus, talked openly about the inspiration for this book and its protagonist: Elizabeth Zoth wasn’t a real person, didn’t exist in the 60s, and her show Supper At Six is not an actual production, but the character is based on a true story – a very personal one. In many aspects, Elizabeth Zott can be considered the representation of Bonnie Garmus’ true story, and it also includes her mother’s experience when she got pregnant with Bonnie.
Bonnie Garmus is the mother of two daughters. She self-studied chemistry and used to attempt some experiments in her kitchen, taken from the old children’s book The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. Also, the passion Elizabeth Zott has for rowing is autobiographical: the author has practiced it for a while and used that knowledge to give her book and character more authenticity.
The story of how Elizabeth Zott’s boss plagiarized her work is also based on the author’s true experience: as Bonnie Garmus told LA Times in this interview, in 2013, she was working as creative director in an advertising agency in California, and one of her pitches was reused by one of the vice presidents who watched her presentation, a man who went on taking full credits for her ideas. As the writer said in that interview, “I was in such a bad mood, that instead of working on the deadline that I was supposed to be working on, I sat down that day, and I wrote the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry.”
Besides all the personal experiences that inspired Bonnie Garmus when she gave birth to the character of Elizabeth Zott, the author doesn’t hide the influence that her mother figure played in all that. Her mother was a nurse, but she had to stop working when she got pregnant with Bonnie. Her story is another symbolic tale about the struggle women face in their lives, among the obstacles and the expectations society has for them.
Therefore, Elizabeth Zott and Lessons in Chemistry is based on the true story of the author Bonnie Garmus and the battles she faced as a woman and a mother in American society. The book and the TV series on Apple TV+ reflect her life experience and her mother’s influence: Elizabeth Zott never existed in the 60s as a real person, but she was there, virtually next to the writer, every time she sat to write a new chapter of the book, thinking back to all the things she had to face after becoming a mother.