Okay, so I’m reviewing this one super early (it comes out in June!) because a) I think a review from someone who has done science is maybe something that the publisher should read (not that my reviews are that well known or anything, but at least it will be out there) and b) my semi-hiatus is coming up and I don’t want this one to get lost. So! Chemistry Lessons was problematic. The writing was great, the characters were engaging, but the entire premise was flawed. And while I feel like the intent of the author (not that intent matters, necessarily) was to give YA readers a sciencey MC to look up to – THIS IS NOT THAT. Young girls who want to do science CANNOT do the things that Maya does in this book. Please PLEASE read this whole review so you can understand why (I get into it in the Dislikes/Problematic Content section of the review.)
On that note.
In Chemistry Lessons, Maya is a new high school graduate who gets a summer job transcribing notes and lectures for a researcher at MIT who used to work closely with her mother, who died from cancer several years earlier. She expects her summer to be pretty awesome – she’ll hang out with her best friend Bryan and have sex with her boyfriend Whit for the first time and get all ready to start her freshman year at MIT in the fall. But then Whit breaks up with her because he fell for someone else, and Maya’s whole life is thrown into a tailspin. She discovers some of her mother’s old research in the attic where she was messing around with pheromones to see if it made a difference in attraction, and Maya decides to try to use the research (and her mother’s former PhD student for help) to try to win Whit back.
Yeah. That’s what the whole book is about. Womp.
3 Things I Loved
- Bryan. Maya’s best friend is a bright spot on this horizon. He is fiercely loyal to her and tries to help her get over Whit in every way he knows how. But he’s busy himself, and he doesn’t know what she’s doing with the science stuff, so he’s pretty much off the hook in preventing this monstrosity of a plot from happening. He’s just a great character. I enjoyed him.
- Kyle. And Kyle. Sweet genius Kyle. Kyle had a huge crush on Maya and then she manipulated him and it sucked to read. He totally deserved to be mad at her, but in the end, HE’S BASICALLY FINE WITH IT AND STILL KIND OF LIKES HER??? Where are the consequences here? But anyway, I loved Kyle, he was my favorite character in the book, I think.
- Ladies in science! If you ignore Maya and Anne (her mother’s PhD student), there are some AWESOME lady scientist characters in this book. There is an Israeli post-doc who is great, and even Maya’s mother is a wonderful example of adult women with science careers. Just don’t be like Maya. But lady scientists, yay!
So, before I get started on this section, here is some background on me that I don’t talk a lot about anymore. I have a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and spent several semesters and a summer doing undergraduate research while I was in college. At the time, I was working in environmental chemistry, looking at sediment samples for certain elements that might indicate water pollution in the watershed area near the college I attended. I then spent a semester in a PhD program for Physiology and Pharmacology, where I sat in on several different labs, looking for a place to hone my skills and knowledge so I could write a thesis and earn that doctorate. Turns out it wasn’t for me, so I left. But one of those labs I sat in on was focused on the affects of alcohol in human subjects, so I was able to see what goes into human subject research and all the hoops that need to be jumped through. So. That’s where I’m coming from when I write this section.
THIS BOOK IS COMPLETELY UNETHICAL. Spoilers to follow.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Maya finds her mother’s research, which was about pheromones. Her mother was doing an initial study on herself and her husband – two consenting adults – to see if her research would actually work and if it would be worth looking into human subject testing on a larger scale. That would require funding, and IRB (Internal Review Board) approval at the university, and more. So, what Maya actually found was just the very first step in a long process. It would have been the foundation of a grant proposal that her mother was thinking about pursuing.
When Maya finds it, all she can think about is that she wants to use this research to get her ex-boyfriend back. If we were to stop here, and she did something that wasn’t scientifically shady as hell to do it, I’d have trouble with this premise for a book. HE DUMPED YOU, MAYA. HE WANTED TO BE WITH SOMEONE ELSE. I’m all about supporting characters who get broken up with and are trying to move on, but characters who will manipulate and steal and do whatever it takes to win their trash ex-boyfriend back? Nope. I’m not here for that. But science, in this case, so I decided to keep reading.
And oof. OOF.
Maya goes to Anne, her mother’s former grad student who has been floundering since her mentor died. Anne jumps on board with helping, because she had been involved in the initial study and she was lonely, basically. But if she wanted to pursue that grant proposal in the future for her own research, she would need something to go off of. But here’s where her grief went WAY TOO FAR. She allowed a seventeen-year-old – LEGALLY, MAYA WAS NOT YET AN ADULT (if I’m remembering correctly) – to be her subject. AND THEN SHE ENCOURAGED MAYA TO PICK THREE PEOPLE AT RANDOM TO EXPERIMENT ON. What did Anne need to complete this experiment on the pheromones? DNA. YEP. YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY. MAYA HAD TO GET DNA FROM PEOPLE AROUND HER SO SHE COULD SEE IF THEY WERE AFFECTED BY HER PHEROMONES CHANGING IN A WAY THAT WAS SPECIFICALLY ATTRACTIVE TO THEM. AND THEY KNEW NOTHING ABOUT IT.
So Maya collects the DNA – hair from a jacket of a near-stranger that she borrowed one night when she was out with Bryan, saliva from a pen that Kyle had chewed on, and something or other from Whit. The solutions were made. Maya had to drop liquid under her tongue for a certain number of days or whatever. And then she started her experiments.
She manipulated Kyle into spending time with her alone when he already had feelings for her. Kyle made a move, she went with it for a while then rebuffed him, and then he left. BECAUSE HIS FEELINGS WERE HURT, YOU DUMBASS. He liked her! And she used him. Then she manipulated the celebrity stranger whose jacket she was wearing, and he wanted to make out with her too! Surprise! And then Whit’s solution, WHICH GAVE HER A FAIRLY INTENSE ALLERGIC REACTION, was used and he also tried to make out with her and kind of get her back but by then she felt bad about Kyle and didn’t really want to be with Whit anymore anyway!!
This book was a trip.
So, in conclusion, these are the problems here:
- It is illegal to do human subject research without the subjects signing consent forms. ILLEGAL. The fact that Maya collected DNA without the permission of any of the subjects of her experiment AND THEN manipulated them into continuing to be a part of the experiment made my stomach hurt.
- This book is for young adults. That means that, based on the description, young women who maybe want to be scientists are going to read this book and be like, cool cool cool, this girl did this using science to get a boy, GREAT IDEA. Noooooooo!! Remember how I said that was illegal?? IT’S ILLEGAL. Boys (or girls or gender non-conforming individuals) aren’t worth effing up your entire careers and lives, be smart about this!
- Maya saw no consequences for her actions. If this had happened for real, she would have been expelled from MIT for sure, potentially legal actions would have been taken, and who knows if another college would take her. Anne would have been black-balled in universities across the country, probably. And the kindly old mentor guy running the lab who turned a blind eye? Probably fired, no retirement, nothing. CONSEQUENCES, Y’ALL. And Maya just got away with everything.
Can you understand why I have problems with this book now? There is so much about it that shouldn’t be labeled as a cute YA love story! Blergh.
A reminder of the rating scale:
- Red = DNF, I hated everything
- Orange = Ugh, no thank you
- Yellow = I mean, I’ve read worse, but there were problems
- Green = This was good!
- Blue = Oh my gosh, I loved this book!
- Purple = This is the unicorn of books and I will be rereading it until the binding falls apart and EVERYONE should be reading it!
Welp, I think I’ve said my piece on this one. I’m giving Chemistry Lessons an ORANGE rating. Please, young budding lady scientists out there who may be reading this review – don’t do what Maya did. Any boy (or girl or gender non-conforming individual) that you love but have to scientifically manipulate in order to get them to want you back ISN’T WORTH YOUR TIME.
That is all.
Thank you to the publisher and to NetGalley for the advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This is one of few cases where getting the book in advance actually may have affected my review, because I’m hoping that something can be changed in advance of publication. Even if it’s a sentence in the blurb that says “So Maya goes to great – and scientifically unethical – lengths to try to get Whit back and learns about herself” or something like that. SOMETHING THAT ACKNOWLEDGES THAT THIS IS BAD. Please, HMH, if you read this, do something!
Y’all, stay safe out there in Booklandia. And only use science for good.