It may seem strange as a Catholic reader that I found reading Bonnie Garmus’s 2022 bestselling novel, Lessons in Chemistry, akin to a religious experience. After all, its protagonist Elizabeth Zott states on the air during a live taping of her 1950s cooking show that she unequivocally does not believe in God. In another section of the book, a Presbyterian minister whispers to Elizabeth’s five-year-old daughter a secret: he does not believe in God either.
Moreover, the Catholic Church features in the novel prominently but not positively. As a youth, Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Calvin Evans, attends a Catholic school for orphans, All Saints. While there, the bishop in charge of the school not only mentally abuses him but also uses him as a pawn to attract donor money, a scheme which separates Calvin from his biological family. Like his girlfriend, Calvin believes in science, not God, a dichotomy the book sets up as impermeable.
With this said, the book brought up questions of faith that at various points had me weeping and soul-searching. Upon reading, I realized a fact that believers like myself might intellectually realize but can often forget: doctrines of the faith are harder to adhere to when one is marginalized socially, even when one would otherwise like to practice them.
Elizabeth, for instance, loves her chemist boyfriend Calvin deeply but refuses to marry him. Considering the book’s 1950s historical backdrop, her worries are founded. She is a scientist who recognizes that marriage, and motherhood, are detrimental to women’s career paths. If she were to marry Calvin, she would become Mrs. Calvin Evans. Her identity would be subsumed within his. Likewise, if she were to become a mother, her career dreams during the 1950s would be all but over. The expectation would be that she would stop working to take care of the child. Although they work together at the same lab, the expectations are different. Marriage, for Calvin, is culturally freeing. For her, it is restricting.
It feels pertinent to mention here that I am a pro-life Catholic feminist and mother of two who believes in the sacrament of marriage and its ability to sanctify the souls of those who walk its path. I also realize that walking such a path risks cultural drawbacks, even today.
A few months ago, Pew released a poll showing that, on average, women earn 82 cents for every dollar men earn. Significantly, women ages 37 to 46—the demographic most likely to have children under 18 living with them (and the one in which I fall)—experience the most pronounced gender pay disparity. Almost 75 years after this novel is set, participating in a marriage and having a family presents startling career drawbacks for women, but the same does not hold for men. Men with children enjoy a significant pay boost.
In Lessons in Chemistry, Elizabeth longs for the engagement ring Calvin buys her: she aspires to marriage. Yet she knows donning it would signal the end of her career aspirations. When Calvin unexpectedly dies soon after their marriage talk, Elizabeth discovers she is pregnant and is swiftly fired from her lab job. Her worst fears are realized even without accepting Calvin’s proposal. She points out to her boss that there’s nothing in her job description she would be unable to fulfill while pregnant, but her boss worries more about the optics of her situation than her abilities to perform her job. Elizabeth pushes back at the double standard this decision underscores, inquiring: “You’re saying that if an unmarried man makes an unmarried woman pregnant, there is no consequence for him. His life goes on. Business as usual.” The ensuing silence affirms Elizabeth’s assessment as accurate. As a woman, on the other end of the spectrum, Elizabeth is left jobless and pregnant.
As she leaves the research company, Fran, a human resources manager, whispers “coattails” to her, insinuating that Elizabeth, a scientist in her own right, had only been employed at the lab because of her relationship with Calvin. Now that he is dead and she is pregnant, she no longer has value at all to the company. In other words, the common misconception—and office gossip—is that Elizabeth rode on Calvin’s “coattails.”
No matter what choices Elizabeth makes in the novel, being in a relationship with a man renders her identity as a person in her own right obsolete. It is no wonder that marriage is not depicted as an inherent good for Elizabeth: culturally, it is not for her. Marriage would require acquiescing to norms that further undermine her human dignity. Why would she consider anything but atheism if getting married, a Catholic sacrament, does not have the potential to sanctify her in the world of this novel? Sure, she loves Calvin, but she also loves her job and her selfhood. Staying with him unmarried makes the most logical (and ethical) sense.
Garmus writes that Elizabeth Zott held “grudges . . . reserved for a patriarchal society founded on the idea that women were less. Less capable. Less intelligent. Less inventive. A society that believed men went to work and did important things—discovered planets, developed products, created laws—and women stayed at home and raised children.” By the Church’s purported standards, we ought to hold “grudges” similar to those that the atheist Elizabeth does. We ought to care for the poor and vulnerable first, those who, like Elizabeth, are treated as second-class citizens. Too often, we listen to those in power, however, judging women harshly for moral choices that society has made harder for them to ponder and enact.
In The Beloved Amazon, Pope Francis writes that, “Dialogue must not only favor the preferential option on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and the excluded, but also respect them as having a leading role to play. Others must be acknowledged and esteemed precisely as others, each with his or her own feelings, choices and ways of living and working.” Patriarchy excludes voices like Elizabeth’s. Multiple research studies about women in office life have demonstrated that women face more interruptions, irrespective of the interrupter’s gender, than men. In meetings, men tend to speak significantly more, with one study revealing that they contribute 75% of the conversation. Even when women speak less, they are often perceived as having spoken more than they have. Additionally, male executives who talk more than their peers are frequently perceived as more competent, while their female counterparts are regarded as less so.
If we are to look after the marginalized first, it is not simply that we ought to do for them what we think is best, but we ought to listen to why they are making the choices they are making. What systemic changes would have made it easier for Elizabeth to marry Calvin, which she wanted to do? How can we better our culture to make God’s ideal plans easier to follow, and not just for those who are privileged? Moreover, we ought to be aware and discuss the research that suggests we’re already listening to women less than men, whether they talk more or not.
Since 2021, the Catholic Church has been participating in a Synod on Synodality, a discernment journey to help the Church contemplate how to best fulfill its mission in the world. Thus, the Church is listening about how Catholics can better talk to each other about the issues that matter to their hearts and lives. The 365-person synod meeting at the end of October at the Vatican included 300 male bishops and 50 Catholic women. The numbers speak for themselves.
When Elizabeth Zott speaks to a reporter at the end of Lessons in Chemistry—a book filled with providential moments when characters meet at the exact times when they need each other and plot points line up neatly in ways readers like myself might call miraculous—Elizabeth stands by her claim that she does not believe in God. She also asks the reporter to conceive of a different type of world than the one they live in. “‘Imagine if all men took women seriously. Education would change. The workforce would revolutionize. Marriage counselors would go out of business. Do you see my point?’” she asks him.
I extend Elizabeth’s logic a step further. Imagine, if all men took women seriously, how the Church would change its internal structures. Imagine how the Church might open more room for belief from those who are most culturally marginalized, from the poor and the vulnerable. Imagine how the Church would change the world.