For some weird reason I found myself reading two books simultaneously. Both were based in the US, featured female protagonists and had an underlying theme of education. However, that’s where the similarity ended. The first, Educated by Tara Westover was a contemporary memoir that told the story of a girl who had entered a school classroom for the first time at age 17 while the second, a novel, Lessons in Chemistry set in the 1960s told the unusual story of a woman chemist trying to hold her own in an unfair, sexist society that has no room for unconventional women.
Educated by Tara Westover
Format: Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan
“An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.”
It has been a while since I have been so moved by a book. Education is a topic close to my heart and I truly believe that women’s education is the basis of women’s empowerment. And to find out that even in contemporary US society there are families that don’t enroll their children into the public school system. Tara is the youngest of seven children who lives in Buck’s Peak in Idaho and like her siblings is expected to work in the family junkyard.
Her entire childhood seems like a tale from a few centuries ago. She and her siblings don’t have birth certificates, they are not vaccinated and every small health issue or significant injury is treated at home by their mother with herbs. From seeing schools and medical establishments as evil, to believing the world is coming to an end, Tara grows up believing her parents’ views. Yet as the story progresses, I was unable to bear the level of physical abuse and neglect she describes. I often paused and forwarded the audio narration to escape the narration of cruelty demonstrated by one of her brothers.
Yet the story is ultimately an uplifting one of individual triumph. Getting straight into college and graduating (without ever setting foot in a school classroom) is not easy but Tara keeps moving ahead and ultimately obtains a Ph.D. from Cambridge. She faces learning obstacles, money problems and health issues but persists.
As Tara learns more about the world, the divide between her own views and those of her parents only grows wider. Repeatedly Tara returns home, trying to find her place but only finds the chasm increasing. She tries to keep a foothold in the two disparate lives she leads until there comes a point when she must choose – her family vs her future. Tara describes this struggle as the most difficult one, even greater than the struggles of fitting in and keeping up with academic expectations in each university she steps into, including Harvard.
My opinion: Read this book only if you have the stomach for descriptions of gory accidents and unbelievable physical and emotional trauma to ultimately celebrate the success of an exceptional scholar.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
I came across Lessons in Chemistry at a bookstore and was immediately intrigued. It’s not often that a woman of science is the lead character in any story. The blurb spoke of a female scientist in the 1960s – the star of a cooking show, a single mom with a young child and a strange dog named Six-Thirty. I picked up a copy at Kunzum bookstore in New Delhi where I had my first in person book discussion with readers and took it along on my short holiday to the mountains of north India.
The best part of my day was sitting on a window seat in my circular room with a warm cup of chai in hand, trying to choose between silently appreciating the clouds dancing outside my window and reading the book in my lap.
I finally got around to sincerely reading the book on my flight to Bangalore, and was engrossed in trying to understand what made the bold and talented Elizabeth Zott fearlessly walk into the lab of famous but quirky scientist Calvin Evans to secure beakers for her own experiment.There was something nostalgic about reading scenes which I had experienced in my own work life in the laboratory although by the time I was a graduate student in the US, women were certainly not rare.
The book shines with scientific facts and dry humour. While I was enraged at the rampant sexism, ubiquitous misogyny and unfair work practices that women in that era had to face, I could understand why the women who watched Supper at Six, Zott’s live TV hit cooking show appreciated it so much. In addition to being subjected to condescension, given limited agency and facing unreasonable gender-specific barriers, women were often viewed as stupid. Zott’s refusal to be anyone but herself and her ability to treat everyone, including her daughter, her dog and her audience as equal and deserving of respect is an endearing quality that immediately gets you on her side.
There is much to appreciate in the book which moves at a rapid clip, thanks to the lean prose and periodic laugh out loud moments. Whether it’s the witty comments of Six-Thirty the dog, the spot-on observations of Mad, the precocious daughter, or the totally clueless ways in which the men who encounter Zott underestimate her, there’s always something happening in each chapter. A lot happens to Zott – she is attacked by her academic supervisor, she falls in love with a Nobel-nominated scientist, her scientific research is stolen and despite all this, she is featured on the cover of Life magazine. And with each twist I felt angered for her and rejoiced with her as she navigated the tribulations of her life with her signature single-minded focus.
My opinion: A wonderful read that manages to illuminate serious issues of the not-so-distant past with a light touch but accomplishes its goal of making you care, not just about the protagonist, but about the lives of women.
In retrospect, I am glad I kept the company of Eizabeth Zott as she ruled from the pages of the print copy of Lessons in Chemistry while Tara Westover’s story was narrated by Julia Whelan in the audiobook that I listened to whenever I stepped out. Both stories were unusual and serious but the fictional tale had me laughing and rooting for Elizabeth while I had to stop every so often to take in the heartbreaking reality of Tara’s difficult childhood and the barriers she had to overcome for education, something I have always taken for granted.
At the end of it all, I was grateful to be born in a generation and in a family where my being female did not bar me from an education or stop me from being a scientist along with all the adventures that followed.