> Skip to content

Article  •  29 March 2022


The Origin of Elizabeth Zott

Bonnie Garmus shares the Inspiration behind her uncompromising and unconventional character, Elizabeth Zott!

Elizabeth Zott got her start a long time ago in a completely different novel. She was a minor character back then, first appearing in a scene where her grown daughter, Madeline, is standing in a kitchen of a dilapidated house when her six-year-old finds a cookbook stashed in a corner. The cookbook is Supper at Six and the child’s grandmother, a grim-looking Elizabeth Zott, stares back from the cover.

Although I abandoned that first book, that cover stuck with me for years. And when I sat down to write a new book, it was Elizabeth Zott who sat down beside me.

I knew a few things about her right away: that she was a gifted chemist; that she’d known great sorrow; and that she had a hit TV cooking show which she always maintained was actually a science show. I also knew she had a young daughter whom she saw, on her best days, as an anthropological wonder. And on her worst days, as a misfit, just like herself.

As it turns out, it is her misfit nature—her inability to fit in—that makes her a stand-out. Because when she presents an undiluted version of what she thinks—all the while wielding a fourteen-inch chef’s knife—she becomes impossible not to watch.

From the very beginning, I liked writing a character who knew who she was; someone who didn’t constantly question herself or spend hours wondering what she should be. Sometimes I’d find myself marveling at her confidence: she doesn’t agonize—she acts. But with that kind of confidence comes a sort of blindness, and naturally that gets her in trouble. People react to her with a mixture of astonishment, frustration, humor, envy. Elizabeth does not have the time or inclination to people-please. She also has no room for avoidance, manipulation, lies, and fakery. Seems like a lot of extra work. Why not just state facts? Why not just tell it like it is?

There were days when I would find myself saying out loud, “You really want to say that, Zott? You really want to go there?” And she’d say, “What? Why not?” She has this streak of cluelessness mixed with a kind of fed-up impatience that I loved writing. She treats gender stereotypes as some sort of clerical error; a momentary lapse in judgment, certain that once everyone rereads their Margaret Meads and Charles Darwins, we’ll all be back on track. She approaches motherhood as an experiment—there will be failures, accidents, falls, sure—but think of the data. She accepts limits for no one—her neighbor, her boss, her dog. But she also is mired in a deep well of depression that comes not only from the tragic events in her life, but from the one thing she abhors more than anything: being misunderstood.

More than anything, she wants to be judged on her contributions. But as a woman, she’s judged on her attractiveness. I made her beautiful for a reason: to show what a burden beauty is. She isn’t taken seriously because of the way she looks, yet gets an enviable job almost entirely based on the same. Worse, her beauty comes from someone she despises—her father, a second-rate performer she’s determined not to emulate.

But what does a cooking show host do if not perform?

Teach, Elizabeth would insist. Preach, her friend Wakely might correct.

And Wakely is right. Because Elizabeth’s recipes aren’t just about food. They’re about life—politics, faith, responsibility, myth, culture, society—the very things that feed our bodies and our minds. And she’s determined that we recognize and cut out all the rotten parts; dispose of the poisons of racism, misogyny, religious zealotry, jealousy, and live up to our dynamic, ever-changing systems—our chemistries. Chemistry, she tells her audience, is change, and change is courage. Don’t be afraid of change, she instructs. Put it on a plate. Serve it for dinner.

And despite all the hurdles—her foes at Hastings Research Institute, her advisor at UCLA, her sexist boss at KCTV, her picketers, even her audience’s sometimes uncomfortable reactions, she refuses to back down. She sets out to teach a nation of overlooked housewives what they’re made of—at a molecular level. And suddenly a nation of women can’t get enough, and men can’t help but listen. And it’s all because Elizabeth Zott takes herself seriously. And in doing so, dares us to do the same.

Feature Title

Lessons in Chemistry
The 6-million-copy worldwide and Sunday Times #1 bestseller and award-winner featuring the uncompromising, unconventional Elizabeth Zott
Read more

More features

See all
The Penguin Summer Reading Club Chapter Sampler

Dive into our summer reading picks to decide which Penguin (or Penguins) you want to escape with this summer!

Staff summer reading recs!

Want some insider intel on the best books to read this summer? Read on for recommendations from the Penguin Random House New Zealand team!

Scorching summer reads

Whether you’re chasing shade on the beach, or sheltering in a bach during a surprise rainstorm, a good book is a summer holiday essential. On this list you’ll find some 2022 scorchers that you may have missed the first time around, and some awesome new releases which we highly recommend.

5 Inspirational quotes from Lessons in Chemistry that will stick with you

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is packed full of wisdom. Check out five of the many inspirational quotes from the book.

Find your perfect winter read!

Temperatures are dropping, the nights are getting darker and it’s the perfect time to find a cozy spot to curl up with a good book . . .

Love Dolly Alderton? This is what you should read after Everything I Know About Love

Wondering what to read after Everything I Know About Love? If you’re a fan of Dolly Alderton’s first book, then you’ll love her second book: Ghosts. Learn all about it and discover more similar titles.

Book clubs
Lessons in Chemistry book club notes

A Sunday Times bestseller and BBC Between the Covers Book Club pick.

Sherri Crichton shares the backstory of Eruption's collaboration

Sherri Crichton, wife of the late Michael Crichton, explains in this letter how the unfinished manuscript of Eruption came to be completed by James Patterson.

Top Reads For June

Thrills, romance, contemporary fiction and more; check out our top reads for June!

Real Readers Review: The Love of My Afterlife

What do readers really think of The Love of My Afterlife?

A Guide to Waitohu Journal

Nau mai ki Waitohu! Read on to learn about Hinemoa Elder's inspiration behind Waitohu, and how to use this special journal.

Top May Picks

Thrills, romance, contemporary fiction and more; check out our top reads for May!

Looking for more articles?

See all articles