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A Recipe For Bees

A Recipe For Bees

by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
“A wonder to be cherished: a wise, beautiful and deeply felt novel that reminds us all that it’s never too late to fall in love.” – Chris Bohjalian, author of Midwives

Gail Anderson-Dargatz's accomplished second novel explores the nature of relationships through the engaging heroine Augusta Olsen, whose quest for love and


“A wonder to be cherished: a wise, beautiful and deeply felt novel that reminds us all that it’s never too late to fall in love.” – Chris Bohjalian, author of Midwives

Gail Anderson-Dargatz's accomplished second novel explores the nature of relationships through the engaging heroine Augusta Olsen, whose quest for love and independence spans a lifetime. Set in the Shuswap region in the interior of British Columbia, the book is saturated with bee lore, rich domestic detail, wondrous imagery culled from rural kitchens and gardens, and shining insights into family and friendship. At its heart are the life, death, and resurrection of an extraordinary marriage.

When her mother dies, eighteen-year-old Augusta is bereft and without direction until she marries her older neighbour, Karl, and they move in with his bitter and unforgiving Swedish father. Karl is shy and taciturn, “missing a certain quality of imagination,” and there is little romance in the marriage. A young woman with an eye for beauty and a longing for affection, Augusta finds life on the remote farm scarcely bearable. An extramarital affair with a spontaneous, mysterious man named Joe – and the parentage of the daughter she subsequently conceives – remain a secret shame that keeps Augusta in quiet despair until she rediscovers her mother's beekeeping equipment. She then begins, as The New York Times wrote, “to put some honey into her life.” As the strands of her life unexpectedly twist together, she sees that the recipe for restoring a marriage is not unlike an old recipe for creating bees. The story of Augusta’s life is toldfrom old age, as she and Karl await news of their son-in-law’s brain surgery.

When Gail Anderson-Dargatz showed the manuscript of A Recipe for Bees to her divorced parents, it caused them to reconsider their sixteen-year separation. “My parents, Eric and Irene, are models for Karl and Augusta in many ways. I set out to show them how extraordinary their seemingly ordinary lives were.” She interviewed them during the writing of the book and as they read the work in progress, they began to talk about unresolved problems, such as how isolating ranch life had been for her mother. Her parents were remarried on Christmas Day, 1998, some fifty years after their first marriage.

For A Recipe for Bees, Anderson-Dargatz was nominated for the prestigious Giller Prize, which was won that year by a writer she greatly admires, Alice Munro. Her internationally acclaimed first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning, was also nominated for the Giller, and won a handful of other awards. Since being published to critical acclaim in 1998, A Recipe for Bees has become a bestseller in Canada and Great Britain, and has been translated into several languages. Augusta Olsen has been compared to one of Canadian literature’s most memorable heroines, Margaret Laurence’s Hagar Shipley, as well as to the protagonist of Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries. But Anderson-Dargatz has a depth and maturity all her own. With her wild sense of the humour and magic of life, she creates a moving celebration of the endurance of love.

A Globe and Mail Notable Book of 1998.

Editorial Reviews

Sophia Watson
It is very refreshing, when reading a book, to enter a fictional world almost through the nose....Read [A Recipe for Bees] for the smells. -- Literary Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Already published in the U.K. and a bestseller in Canada, Anderson-Dargatz's (The Cure for Death by Lightning) latest is a warm and wise love story, an exploration of the extraordinary as revealed in everyday lives. Augusta Olsen inherited from her mother a passion for bee-keeping along with a spirited nature and the often troubling gift of clairvoyance. At 18, she marries 30-year-old Karl Olsen, a shy man who takes her to live with his domineering father, Olaf, on an isolated farm in British Columbia. Augusta quickly grows to resent Karl's taciturnity, his refusal to stand up to his tyrannical father and his lack of sexual finesse. Determined not to give in to despair, Augusta accepts the friendship of the local minister, finds work in town and has a brief affair with Joe, a gracious and sensuous man very unlike her husband. Karl bears "with equilibrium" the cruel small-town gossip about Augusta's infidelity, even after the birth of a daughter he knows isn't his. Augusta impels her young family's move from Olaf's farm, but only years later does she rediscover the "ointment for her soul" in bee-keeping, starting a small business that reconnects her to the community and sparks her first "love affair" with Karl. As she ages, Augusta struggles less with Karl's stoic temperament, coming to appreciate his steadiness and the miracle of the way he expresses his love for her in "a simple gesture he had been planning for a day or two, a message contained in flowers." Augusta is a headstrong heroine with prismatic perspectives; her long, never-dull life as told by the gifted Anderson-Dargatz is both charming and impressive in its quiet, cumulative power. The author's family photos, which introduce some chapters, add resonance to her touching tale.(Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
On the 48th anniversary of her marriage to Karl, Augusta awaits word of the results of her beloved son-in-law's brain surgery and reflects on her life's tribulations. Having lost her mother at 14, Augusta was no stranger to hardship when she married at 18. Still, life with the much-older Karl and his miserly father on a remote farm that had not seen a woman's touch in decades was initially almost too much to bear. But, finally, after she had found tenderness with another man and borne his child, Augusta was able to lure Karl from his father to a farm of their own. There, Augusta started keeping bees to earn a little extra money and began to find some sweetness in her marriage. Already a best seller in Canada and England, this moving story by the talented Anderson-Dargatz (The Cure for Death by Lightning) is bound to win her a devoted American audience. Recommended for public libraries.--Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.21(w) x 6.89(h) x 0.67(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One

"Have I told you the drone's penis snaps off during intercourse with the queen bee?" asked Augusta.

"Yes," said Rose. "Many times."

Before Augusta dragged her luggage upstairs to the apartment, before she checked on the welfare of her elderly husband, Karl, even before she hugged and greeted her seven kittens, she had made her way, with the aid of a cane, across the uneven ground to inspect the hive of bees she kept in Rose's garden.

"They won't mate at all unless they're way up in the sky," said Augusta. "The drones won't take a second look at a queen coming out of a hive. But when she's thirty, a hundred, feet up in the air, then she gets their interest. They'll seek her out, flying this way and that to catch her scent until there's a V of drones — like the V of geese following a leader in the sky — chasing along behind her."

"You were going to tell me about Joe," said Rose.

"As soon as the drone mounts and thrusts, he's paralyzed, his genitals snap off, and he falls backward a hundred feet to his death."

"I don't want to hear about it."

In 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, but without the tang of apples to it. She should have been smelling this now, but instead the hive gave off the vinegar-and-almond scent of angry bees. They buzzed loudly, boiling in the air in front of the hive like a pot of simmering toffee. There were far more guard bees than usual, standing at attention atthe mouth of the hive.

"Something's been after the bees," said Augusta. She took a step forward to examine them, but several bees flew straight at her, warning her off. "I'll have to look at them later," she said. "When they've settled down."

She turned to the balcony of her apartment, directly above the garden. "Do you think Karl remembers today is our anniversary?"

"He hasn't said anything to me," said Rose. Later that evening, though, Augusta would learn that Rose had hidden Karl's flowers in her fridge. He had walked up and down the roadsides and into the vacant lots, searching for pearly everlastings, sweet tiny yellow flowers with white bracts that bloomed from midsummer right on into winter, and held their shape and color when dried. They were the flowers Karl had picked for Augusta's wedding bouquet forty-eight years before. He had brought the flowers to Rose's apartment in a vase and asked her to hide them in her fridge until later that day.

"You'd think he'd remember, wouldn't you?" said Augusta. "Especially after everything that's happened these past three weeks."

"You'd think."

"You can hear it, you know."


"The snapping. If you're listening for it, you can hear a sharp crack when the drone's penis breaks off."

"Oh, God."

Rose followed Augusta as she headed through the sliding glass doors into Rose's apartment to retrieve her luggage. "Can you carry this one upstairs?" she asked Rose. "And this one? I can only manage the one bag with this cane of mine."

Rose took the bags, one in each hand. "But you were going to tell me the story, about seeing Joe again."

"Not now, Rose. I want to see if Joy's phoned with news about Gabe."

"But you promised."

"We'll have plenty of time later."

"You'd go and tell something like that to some strange woman on the train, but you won't tell your best friend."

"I like Esther. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of her. I promised to show her my hive."

"You'll be seeing a lot more of her. I don't care if I ever see her again."

"Well, since neither Esther nor I can drive, you'll have to drive me, so yes, you will be seeing her again."

"Oh, isn't that just great? Now I'm your personal chauffeur."

Augusta turned around at the doorway. "Rose, what's this all about?"

"Just tell the story. About Joe. I thought you never saw him again."

Augusta shook her head and started up the stairs to her apartment. "I'm sure I told you all that already. I can remember showing you the brooch he gave me. Ages and ages ago."

"Yes, the day we met. But you never told me the story. Are you really going to give that brooch to Joy?"

Augusta had met Rose five years before, on the ferry, just after she and Karl had sold the farm. Augusta and Karl were moving to the warmer climate of Vancouver Island. Rose turned the corner into the ferry bathroom and there was Augusta, sitting at the mirrored makeup counter they have on those boats, rummaging through her big purse. Augusta had looked up at Rose in the mirror, smiled, and said, "Do you have a comb? I can't seem to find mine."

Perhaps it was an inappropriate request to make of a stranger, she thought now, rather like asking to borrow someone's toothbrush. Rose said no. "They have them at the newsstand."

"Thanks. I'll get one from there. That's a lovely brooch you're wearing."

"It was my mother's," Rose replied, and Augusta promptly caught her in a web of conversation about the brooch a man named Joe had given her, a brooch Augusta pulled from her purse and showed Rose: a silver setting hemmed a real bee suspended in amber. When Augusta held it up, it cast a little pool of honey light on the floor. "It was the only lasting thing he ever gave me, in the way of presents," she said. "And that was decades after I'd stopped seeing him. I still dream about him, you know." Rose nodded and smiled and moved slowly backward, away, to a toilet stall. Augusta, seeing her discomfort, left before she came out again.

Meet the Author

Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose fictional style has been coined as “Pacific Northwest Gothic” by the Boston Globe, has been compared by critics to John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her novels have been published worldwide in English and in many other languages. A Recipe for Bees and The Cure for Death by Lighting were international bestsellers, published worldwide in English and in many other languages, and were both short-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada. The Cure for Death by Lightning won the UK’s Betty Trask Prize among other awards. A Rhinestone Button was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was short-listed for the Leacock Award for humour.

Her mother, who also wrote, instilled literary confidence in Gail, so that by the age of eighteen, Gail knew she wanted to be the next Margaret Laurence, writing about Canadian women in rural settings. "Laurence's interest in them made me feel that their and my experience was important."

In her early twenties, the future author got a job as a reporter for her hometown paper, the Salmon Arm Observer, but continued to enter her fiction in competitions, and she started to win. One submission caught the attention of the writer Jack Hodgins, who encouraged her to enroll in his course at the University of Victoria. She graduated from there with a B.A. in creative writing.

Gail's literary career began to take off when she won first prize in the CBC Literary Competition for a story taken from an early draftof her first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning. When a Toronto literary agent took her on she already had a short story collection ready to go: The Miss Hereford Stories. Set in the 1960s in the fictional town of Likely, Alberta,("what you call a half-horse town") the book, with its cast of colourful eccentrics, was published in 1994 and nominated for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. The Cure for Death by Lightning, her first novel, followed two years later.

Saturday Night magazine has said that the inclination to write about rural characters sets Anderson-Dargatz apart from many writers of her generation, who tend towards urban fiction. What does she find so fascinating about small-town and country life? "Once you step off the concrete, life stops being abstract and starts being very real, very immediate, very fundamental and very sensual." On this topic, the Financial Post said, “Anyone who thinks rural characters in Canadian fiction are dull and bland should pick up one of Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novels. … The only certainty in her world view is that anything can, and very often does, happen.”

Although she is influenced by Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, her mentor Jack Hodgins and favourite writers such as Toni Morrison, she says her inspiration comes “from the people and landscapes around me more than from other books." Her style has been called "Margaret Laurence meets Gabriel García Márquez" because her writing tends towards magic realism, but she says the ghosts and premonitions in her writing arise from family stories of the Thompson-Shuswap region, which she carefully transcribed. "My father passed on the rich stories and legends about the region I grew up in, which he heard from the interior Salish natives he worked with. And my mother told me tales of her own premonitions, and of ghosts, eccentrics and dark deeds that haunted the area."

Gail Anderson-Dargatz has just recently returned home to that landscape found in so much of her writing, the Thompson-Shuswap region, and she currently teaches advanced novel and advanced fiction in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of British Columbia.

From the Hardcover edition.

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