For Emily Fisher, bumping into people has ceased to be a figure of speech. She’d tell you it’s not her fault; she’s not normally clumsy, but between being shot at and taking paths that defy geography, her life has become rather confusing. And this is before she runs into Hannah Wyatt, self-styled Instrument of the Divine, purveyor of romantic advice to lovesick teens, and, as Emily is about to find out, amateur alchemist. Emily’s day takes a turn into the Children’s religious practices in “Better living through chemistry,” chapter 20 of Prophecies and Penalties.
The phrase “better living through chemistry” has become so common that I suspect many people don’t realize it originated as a public relations and advertising slogan for the DuPont Company (E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company) back in 1935: “Better things for better living . . . through chemistry.” Quite appropriate, coming from a company that began by making gunpowder and in the 20th century was one of the leaders in plastic. No doubt when Mr. McGuire advised Ben Braddock in The Graduate (1967) to go into plastics, he was thinking of firms such as DuPont. Unfortunately for DuPont, the phrase started to take on a satirical and sinister meaning starting in the 1960s. Books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) pointed out the adverse effects of the new chemical pesticides on wildlife. The rapid rise of valium as a prescription tranquilizing drug following its introduction in 1963 spawned an image of drugged-out housewives that was embodied in the Rolling Stones’ song “Mother’s Little Helper” (1966). Finally, the popularity of psychoactive recreational drugs by the late 1960s gave DuPont’s slogan an entirely new meaning, one which the company no doubt disliked. Even so, they didn’t change the slogan until 1982.