A Recipe for Bees: A Novel
“In the late summer, hives full of ripening honey emitted a particular scent, like the whiff of sweetness Augusta used to catch passing by the candy-apple kiosk at the fall fair.”
Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s beautiful new novel is saturated with bee lore, rich domestic detail, wondrous imagery culled from rural kitchens and gardens, and shining insights into family and friendship. And at its heart are the life, death, and resurrection of an extraordinary marriage.
A Recipe for Bees introduces a remarkable and engaging heroine whose quest for love and independence spans a lifetime. Augusta Olsen has attitude, a wicked funny bone, a generous and wayward heart, and the gift of second sight.
When her mother dies, Augusta is bereft and without direction until she marries her first suitor, Karl, the shy son of a detestable old farmer. As a young woman with an eye for beauty who longs for affection, she finds life on their remote, rustic farm almost unbearable. When the local reverend offers the occasional afternoon relief from her cloistered existence, she accepts; when another man from the town shows interest, she feels herself drawn toward him. Eventually, she and Karl and their young daughter, Joy, move onto a farm of their own, and Augusta looks for new ways to assert her independence. It is not until she resurrects her mother’s beekeeping equipment that sweet possibilities become evident. And as the strands of her life unexpectedly twist together, the indulgences of youth and the many delights and exasperations of old age are enchantingly revealed.
Augusta Olsen has seven cats, a son-in-law in the hospital “for tests,” and a husband who never says what he is thinking. A Recipe for Bees looks back over her life story, from a childhood on a farm in rural Canada through various waves of premonition and loss. As a young girl she is infatuated with the handsome and mysterious Joe, but all she has left of him is a pendant: a bee frozen in amber. When her mother dies, she marries Karl, who loves her so much that his face reddens when he looks at her. He makes her feel safe and irritable. Only late in life when she rediscovers her mother’s beekeeping equipment does Augusta find a true opening into the past, as she spends hours out among the swarms, observing how “a handful of bees felt for all the world like a handful of warm black currants.”
A Recipe for Bees is most original and compelling in such passages, which have inherent metaphoric power. It is not for readers seeking the overtly provocative—Gail Anderson-Dargatz stays within a passionate but circumscribed set of images and emotions. A prizewinner for her previous novel The Cure for Death by Lightning, the author will appeal to readers who understand the power of everyday tragedies. —Emily White