Helena Smalman-Smith |

Lessons in Chemistry author Bonnie Garmus talks rowing

Rower and bestselling author of Lessons in Chemistry Bonnie Garmus shares highlights of her personal rowing story, explains why she included rowing in the book, and the rowing words her dog knew (read the book if you don’t know why this matters).

When it comes to rowing, Bonnie Garmus is just like the rest of us (well, apart from bowsiders and scullers, but more on that later). She likes to win, she treasures having close bonds with her crewmates, and a pet peeve is non-rowers in gyms doing peculiar things on ergos.

Bonnie’s rowing story

Back to the beginning, though. Bonnie took up rowing in her late 30s when she moved to Seattle and was intrigued when she saw “a long thin boat” going by. She quickly headed down to Green Lake Crew for a taster session. “The minute I got in the boat and we headed out on the lake, it was so much fun that I immediately thought ‘This is something I want to learn how to do,’ so I signed up for a long term course,” she explains.

At the final session, the coach asked her if she’d like to take part in a 2k race the next day as someone had dropped out. “I’d never competed in rowing and I couldn’t sleep the night before – it was absolutely frightening but it was the best time ever. And we won!,” she remembers. “It’s a miracle I didn’t catch a crab but at the end of it I thought, ’This is something I really want to pursue.’”

Since then she’s been a typical, enthusiastic member of the masters rowing community and has raced extensively, including at the USRowing Masters National Championships and World Rowing Masters Championships. 

One of her top rowing memories was rowing with members of the 2008 Olympic gold medal winning eight at a charity event called Row for the Cure®. “There were eight of the Olympians – plus two coxes – and eight of us who were cancer survivors,” she says. “And when we all gathered in the boathouse, someone said, ‘You’re going to stroke this boat!’ There was an Olympian sitting right behind me and I thought, ‘Can’t I just fade into the back somewhere?’”

But of course Bonnie rose to the challenge, although being coxed by the legendary Mary Whipple (who was a member of the US women’s eight for more than 10 years) wasn’t quite as helpful as she might have expected. “As we were paddling out to the start line, Mary was doing a live radio interview on her phone!” Bonnie recalls.

Quick questions

Port or starboard*? Bonnie looks almost affronted – as if the question were ‘cake or stale toast?’
“Port. Without a doubt.”
*US terms for strokeside and bowside.

Sweep or sculling? “Sweep.”

Eight or pair? “Eight!” Having shared a story of one pairs race at the US National Masters where her bow had ‘steering difficulties’, which included them visiting a number of lanes and flipping another boat, this is perhaps no surprise.

Lessons in rowing and life as well as chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Bonnie threaded rowing into Lessons in Chemistry as a sub-plot simply because it was something she knew about. In contrast, she had to teach herself chemistry (surely it’s typical of a rower to take on this kind of challenge), to get the major storyline correct. As the book is set in the 1950s, she did this from a contemporary textbook so that she didn’t inadvertently include anything that hadn’t been discovered then. 

One of the reasons for Lessons in Chemistry’s phenomenal success is that it has resonated across age groups. This was far from given, since it focuses on the barriers and prejudices faced by the character Elizabeth Zott, a female scientist and single parent in the 1950s. “It’s probably that people see their own struggles in what she went through, whether they’re a man or a woman,“ Bonnie says. “A lot of different schools have adopted it as a text, so boys are reading it and it’s awakening the next generation to the problems that women have in the workplace.” 

Not only that but teenage boys have even written to her about the direct impact the story has had on them. One told her that after reading the book, he challenged his father on how he put his mother down all the time. Another group confessed that they’d been mocking a girl in their science class and were now going to stop doing so, having realised not only that their classmate deserved the grades she was getting but that their behaviour didn’t reflect well on them. 

Unfortunately, she adds, “I also hear from women all over the world every day and most of the scientists say that the lab they work in every day is the one that I portrayed in the book, which has been a little bit depressing.”

Six-Thirty and Friday

Fans of Lessons in Chemistry (i.e. everyone who’s read it) may wonder whether the characters in the book are real. The answer is no – they’re purely fictional, with the important exception of Six-Thirty, the dog, who was inspired by her former pet Friday. Both dogs’ super power was having an extensive vocabulary of human words, mainly self-taught. “There were so many words that Friday learned that way. I probably didn’t realise all the words that she knew,” Bonnie says. “We used to test her, and sometimes she’d be, ‘No, I don’t know that one,’ but other times she’d be, ‘Watch this! I know that!’ and go off and find whatever it was we’d said.” 

Did Friday know any rowing words? Yes she did! “I used to wear a spacer tool – for changing height spacers – on a cord round my neck. One time I did say to her, ‘Where’s my spacer tool? and she went and got it! Now that was something I’d never taught her but she’d always seen me put it on and say ‘spacer tool’ and she memorised it.”

What next?

Bonnie is currently working on her next novel but – spoiler alert – there’s no rowing in it. She’d like to include it in future books, though, not least because she’s extremely aware of the promotional value to rowing of an appearance in popular media. “I feel that our sport is so misunderstood and so badly represented, so I have this compulsion to keep repeating the message that this is a sport that is really based on co-operation and equality, and power and strength, and perseverance, so why is everyone not learning to row? This is such an important way to grow yourself as a human being – plus you get to be outside!”

And does she have a rowing ‘bucket list’? Rowing on the Henley stretch, perhaps, given that she currently lives in London? Ironically, the phenomenal success of Lessons in Chemistry, which has so far sold over six million copies in more than 40 countries since it published in 2022, means that Bonnie’s hectic worldwide publicity schedule has proved incompatible with crew rowing. She has managed to tick off a Henley appearance, though – completing the Henley swim. Let’s hope her current dog knew the meaning of ‘towel’.

A special clothbound edition of Lessons in Chemistry (pictured at the top of this page) was published in the UK on 29 February 2024.